Monday, October 31, 2011

Clever, witty, tense, entertaining "Scream" a bolt from the blue

Scream (1996) 
111 min., rated R.
Grade: A

Wes Craven's most accomplished work, the clever, witty, and entertaining "Scream," walks a knife between homage and spoof, while also being an uncommonly effective representative and revitalization of the horror genre. "Scream" deconstructs slasher movies with wicked, self-aware humor and daringly pokes fun at the clichéd no-no rules: don't drink or do drugs, never have sex, and never ever say you'll “Be Back!” because you won't be back. These characters are savvier than the slasher-pic stereotypes in that they've actually seen movies, let alone horror movies. How post-modern. 

The opening ten minutes of "Scream" are masterfully executed, amusing as they are scary, and will go down in film history next to the shower scene in "Psycho" or the first shark attack in "Jaws." Played by a blonde Drew Barrymore in an innocent-white sweater, Casey answers a ringing phone, home alone, popping popcorn and readying herself to watch a scary movie. What starts out as a flirtatious stranger on the other line, Casey senses the person is closer than she initially thinks, gets quizzed on horror-movie trivia to live, and finds herself running and screaming. When the killer asks a potential victim if she likes scary movies, she laughs off the slasher movie trope: "What's the point? They're all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can't act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door." But when she's finally put into real peril, she runs up the stairs. 

Thanks to a hot new cast, the colorful characters are brought to life. Neve Campbell is a fresh-faced heroine, both strong-willed and vulnerable, as 17-year-old Sidney Prescott, whose mother was murdered exactly one year before Casey's murder (are the murders related?). Her coming-of-age grounds the film. Courtney Cox is just right, sexy and funny, as tabloid reporter Gail Weathers who thinks she's a big deal. David Arquette is endearingly goofy as a boyish, Barney Fife-type cop, Deputy Dewey. Rose McGowan gives sassy, likable support as Sidney's best friend and Dewey's sister Tatum, who gets her memorable "big closeup," Matthew Lillard is a loony eager-beaver as Tatum's boyfriend Stu, Jamie Kennedy is amusingly over-the-top as movie-geek Randy, and Skeet Ulrich (a dead ringer for Johnny Depp) is suspicious and interestingly complex as Sidney's charming but mysterious boyfriend Billy. As the cherry on top, Henry "the Fonze" Winkler gives a cameo as the high school principal, as does Craven as a janitor in a red-and-green Freddy Krueger sweater. 

Incoming writer Kevin Williamson's script is smart, ironic, and self-reflexive, working within the genre conventions that Craven stages like a pro. The plotting is intricate, and as all the red herrings culminate in a corn syrup-splattered climax at a house party, the whodunit twists are unexpected. The killer's black reaper robe and mask (evoking Edvard Munch's "The Scream" oil painting), as well as the menacing voice on the phone, are unshakable. The winking, satirical references might be cute ("You're starting to sound like some Wes Carpenter flick or something"), but feel never overdone to the point of overshadowing the violence; Craven and Williamson make us chuckle and then move on. After so many lackluster franchise sequels making the horror genre feel played-out, "Scream" is a bolt from the blue that puts 'horror' back in vogue.

"The Monster Squad' nostalgic, under-celebrated gem

The Monster Squad (1987) 
82 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B +

If Richard Donner's "The Goonies" (1985) featured the five classic Universal Movie Monsters, it'd turn out looking something like "The Monster Squad," a quickly paced, entertaining Spielbergian horror-comic monster mash. That's right—Count Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and Gill-man in one major motion picture; it's like a horror movie boy's dream come true. 

Opening up "The Monster Squad" in grand, spooky, atmospheric horror fashion, an amusing crawl (dated 100 years prior to the story proper) states that Van Helsing and his freedom fighters tried to rid the world of vampires and monsters…but blew it. Flash forward to the present day, in the suburbs of small-town America, a gang of misfit (but pretty normal) boys who sit in their clubhouse and talk about monsters get themselves way in deep. Dracula and the parade of monsters have arrived in town in desperate search of Van Helsing's diary and a powerful amulet. Once the kids know what's ahead of them, they call themselves The Monster Squad. With the help of "Scary German Guy" (who exists and lives in a house not unlike Michael Myers) and a virgin, the monsters can be put to rest and the so-called losers can save the day. 

What's nostalgic and comfy about "The Monster Squad" is how the filmmakers wear their love of horror movies on their sleeve and have a whole lotta fun with it without lessening the stakes in which people are placed in peril. Director Fred Dekker ("Night of the Creeps") executes this cute idea with tongue-in-cheek humor, a playfulness, and a sure sense of fun. Dekker and "Lethal Weapon" scribe Shane Black's script delightfully employs the "Dad, there's a monster in my closet" trope with ironic humor and makes a homage to the little-girl-by-the-pond scene from the Boris Karloff classic "Frankenstein." 

The actors playing Sean and Horace/Fat Boy (Andre Gower and Brent Chalem) are funny, endearing, and relatable; it's especially easy to root for Horace when he shows off killing a monster in front of the school bully (Jason Hervey who played bullying brother Wayne Arnold in TV's beloved "The Wonder Years"). It's surprising, almost alarming, how many times the words "faggot" and "homo" are mouthed by the boys, but goes to show how ahead of the times political incorrectness was before the '90s. The bond between little Phoebe (Ashley Bank) and Frankenstein's monster (nicely played by Tom Noonan who last played serial killer Francis Dollarhyde in 1986's "Manhunter") isn't given the same touching treatment as Gertie and E.T.'s in Spielberg's "E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial" (1982) but still has a friendly sweetness. Stan Winston's monster creations are impressively practical and realistic. 

"The Monster Squad" remains an undercelebrated gem, stamped with a youthfulness of its era, and a time capsule for the '80s that's worth revisiting like a dear old friend's headstone. 

'80s Slashers: "The Burning," "The Funhouse"

The Burning (1981) 
90 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

Camp caretaker Cropsey burnt by some punk kids years ago promptly returns to dispatch teens with his handy hedge clippers ... you know the drill. One of the first productions from producer Harvey Weinstein and co-writer Bob Weinstein's Miramax Films, "The Burning" is a typical slasher rehash of "Friday the 13th" (1980) but less shabby than most of its type. In fact, it moves a lot faster than that impressionable Sean S. Cunningham flick and manages some suspense in between the body-count kills. There's one memorably bloody murder sequence in particular. When a bunch of camp canoes get loose on the lake, a group of campers agree to build a raft and collect all the canoes. Approaching a seemingly empty canoe, the scene becomes a surprise attack that catches both the kids and the viewer off-guard. The final confrontation between Cropsey and some survivors in an old mine shaft lags a bit, reliant on flashbacks, but has two jump scares that work as well as any. 

"The Burning" is nothing we haven't seen done more than a hundred times before, maybe even in the same year, but it admits to being campy and cheesy, with Tom Savini's makeup effects and splatter gore part of its low-budget charm. Look for future stars Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter, popping up as campers. A competently made, underlooked genre gem, "The Burning" should delight '80s horror fans with the requisite red stuff and some gratuitous female nudity. 

The Funhouse (1981) 
96 min., rated R.
Grade: B 

Following his genre-defining directorial debut, 1974's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," Tobe Hooper made a stylish little horror flick called "The Funhouse." Level-headed virgin Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) goes on a first date with filling-station hunk Buzz (Cooper Huckabee), along with her friends Richie (Miles Chapin) and Liz (Largo Woodruff). Against her father's wishes, they have a night out at the traveling carnival. A bag lady mouths impending doom, and what starts as some harmless fun on rides, seeing a fortune teller, and looking at two-headed cows, leads to a night of terror as they (unwisely) spend the whole night in the funhouse. Meanwhile, Amy's practical-joking brother sneaks out and attends the carnival too. Inside the maze of pop-up skeletons and scary monster puppets is a monstrously deformed son of the funhouse barker. They shoulda gone to the movies instead. 

"The Funhouse" isn't just a cheesy slasher flick, but a superior one. Opening with a P.O.V. shower scene is an homage to both 1960's "Psycho" and 1978's "Halloween." There's actual tension and lots of carnie-freak color and atmosphere. Much like Hooper's groundbreaking last effort, the violence here is much more suggestive than explicit, and the pacing is more of a slow-burn. Hooper impresses with two slow crane shots, hovering over the carnival. The characters are even more likable and have more personality than the garden-variety teens of this genre. In her feature debut, Berridge is natural and appealing as Amy, with a loud set of pipes to boot. Had she done more horror films after this, she could've been another Jamie Lee Curtis or Jill Schoelen scream queen. 

Saturday, October 29, 2011

"Don't Look Now" classical suspenser

Don't Look Now (1973) 
110 min., rated R.
Grade: A

From the "in quotes" title on screen, "Don't Look Now" appears as a B-movie at first blush. But really, this is a classical horror-mystery and a devastating portrait of grief and predestined death that taps into a parent's worst primal fear—the death of their own child. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are superb as a married couple, John and Laura Baxter, whose daughter drowns in a pond on their country property. Leaving their son in school, the two depart for Venice, where John restores a 16th century church. In a restaurant, Laura meets two sisters, one of whom is blind and psychic and reassures her of her dead daughter's happiness. But then after a warning of danger, a short figure keeps reappearing in a hooded red raincoat—the same garment worn by John and Laura's daughter when she drowned. 

From Daphne du Maurier's short story, "Don't Look Now" patiently moves and slowly gains more momentum halfway through, priming us with a "nothing is as it appears" atmosphere. Under the artful direction of Nicolas Roeg, he brilliantly fills his frame, evoking a menacing mood and subtle clues of impending doom. His Venice isn't a lovely tourist city here, but rather a shadowy place where, as one character describes it like "a dinner party" where "all the guests are dead and gone." Roeg makes chilling use of the Italian alleyways, bridges, and canals. 

The editing combines poetic motifs of water and the color red, and powerfully intercuts images that alter the viewer's perception and wrap up the film's complex themes and narrative that can't be fully comprehended upon just one viewing. Finally, Pino Dongaggio's piano score is the oil to the machine, subtle and operatic when needed. Sutherland and Christie are emotionally convincing as parents in grief. Reportedly dating at the time, the two actors share such an intimate, erotic (and then-controversial) lovemaking scene that doesn't feel in the least simulated. The opening scene of the daughter's drowning is lyrically shot and edited, and heartbreaking in its artistic design. The last ten minutes of "Don't Look Now" are creepily cloaked in stark, foggy atmosphere and its payoff is memorably unnerving. 

Although the identity of the red-hooded dwarf isn't important, the image is unshakable, much like the film itself. Evocative of Hitchcock but still very much its own entity, "Don't Look Now" is a richly layered and brilliantly tense piece of filmmaking that will fry your nerves and make you think.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Eerie, underrated "Sentinel" slathers on dread

The Sentinel (1977) 
92 min., rated R.
Grade: B

Not quite ready to tie the knot yet with her two-year boyfriend Michael (Chris Sarandon), supermodel Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) finds her own brownstone apartment in Brooklyn Heights. Once all moved in, she meets one of her friendly old neighbors, Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith), and a strange, extremely open lesbian couple (Sylvia Miles, Beverly D'Angelo). During photo shoots, Alison begins experiencing regular fainting spells and waking up to loud noises at night. When she brings her problems to the attention of enigmatic real estate agent Miss Logan (Ava Gardner), it turns out only a blind, reclusive priest that lives on the top floor, "looking" out his window, and Alison reside in the building that stands. In fact, that apartment might just be a gateway to H-E Double Hockey Sticks. 

A pretty eerie chiller, "The Sentinel" strings us along with some good B-movie scares and a disturbingly outlandish twist. Based on the same-named novel by Jeffrey Konvitz who co-wrote the screenplay with director Michael Winner, the film has some evil surprises even if the twist is only sketchily developed. One creepy shock involving Alison's encounter with her corpsy father in the empty apartment above is truly the high point. Raines is engaging as heroine Alison, Eli Wallach is amusingly showy as a detective, and some other supporting members of the big-name cast give very actorly turns. Watch for a young Jeff Goldblum and Christopher Walken in bit parts. Not quite up to the stature of Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby," but "The Sentinel" is scary enough. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"Melancholia" Beautiful, Sprawling Apocalypse

Melancholia (2011)
130 min., rated R.

Danish film auteur Lars von Trier continues to vie for our attention by making arthouse films about fragile, masochistic women. If 2009's punishingly pompous "Antichrist" was his horror film, and an angry, arrogant reaction from the director's publicized depression, then "Melancholia" is his sci-fi disaster movie and hopefully results in no relapse of a mental breakdown. This one has no slicing of female genitalia, but it's as visually mesmerizing and emotionally hopeless as the end of days could be. What with Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" and Mike Cahill's "Another Earth," it seems the most ambitious of filmmakers had a mutual epiphany: play a family drama against cosmic events. Casting a spell with an otherworldly beauty and sprawling vision, von Trier's "Melancholia" is a beautifully profound meditation on depression and human existence. 

Split in half, Part One: Justine and Part Two: Claire, the story follows two sisters that each represent different reactions to the portent of an apocalyptic event, whether it be emotionally unstable or keeping it together on the outside. Arriving late to their own wedding reception, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) have one of their last laughs maneuvering the limo through a winding, narrow driveway to the luxurious home of her level-headed older sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and money-minded husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). After Claire and John chide them for being late, the calamities pile up and Justine begins to deliberately sabotage her own newly wedded bliss. Michael's best man and Justine's boss, Jack (Stellan Skarsgård, Alexander's real-life father), promotes the bride to art director at their advertising firm, but then has his minion (Brady Corbet) follow her around to get a campaign tagline out of her. Justine also feels alienated from her parents: her mother (Charlotte Rampling) is so bitter that she won't give a speech but stands up from her seat anyway to disparage the idea of marriage, and her randy father (John Hurt) is so preoccupied with his lady guests named Betty. At one point, Justine drifts away from her own party, taking a golf cart to stare at a red star in the sky and urinate on the golf course. After returning to start the celebration, she exits again to put her nephew to bed, only to fall asleep, and right before she's scheduled to cut the cake she's bathing in the tub. Justine can only keep her fake smiles up for so long. By the end of their wedding night, Michael leaves his alienated bride. 

In Part Two, Claire is still nursing and reassuring Justine, but eventually becomes the sick one as fears the blue planet of Melancholia will collide with our own. As a doomsayer, Justine might know things others do not, like the unavoidable coming of doomsday. Set to the prelude of Richard Wagner's classical opera Tristan und Isolde, the film's prelude is a stunning tableaux of majestic, painterly postcards at hyper-slow speed. The camera centers on a dazed Dunst's long face as birds fall from the sky; the bride herself weighed down by not only her wedding dress train but the vines and roots of a forest green; Claire, with her son in her arms, trudging through the quicksandy golf green; and Melancholia encroaching upon Earth. 

Wry and penetrating, the first half plays like "Rachel Getting Married," depicting the ceremonial dinner, awkward toasts, celebration on the dancing floor, with even fewer smiles toward the end. It's by far the more interesting of the two, as the latter half palls a bit but at least builds vividly to the inevitable rather than unraveling into insanity. The film is such a visually and aurally striking achievement, with Manuel Alberto Claro's handheld cinematography so intimate and the effects a magical work of cinematic art, that it deserves to be seen on a huge screen the way it was intended. 

Much of the film's accolade goes to the performances von Trier pulls out of his actors whose characters' swapped personas are direct metaphors to Melancholia's collision with Earth. We know so little about Justine and some of her cruel actions are out of nebulous illogic that it's nearly impossible to connect at first. But then again, depression is not always easy to explain. The ambiguity on the page forces Dunst to delve even deeper into the skin of Justine, delivering a performance that's the farthest from one-note. Happy to manic-depressive and self-destructive to vulnerable and then finally a 180 degree turn at ease, she articulates every complex, uninhibited emotion with her face rather than words. Winning herself an award for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival, Dunst has never shown what she could fully offer dramatically until now. This is the performance of her career. In the "Claire" section, when Claire runs a bath for her sister, Dunst's depiction of her heavy-footed, catatonic state is jaw-dropping. Her on-screen bravery even extends to another nude scene she performs while moon-bathing by a riverbank. Gainsbourg has less to bare than her last time working with von Trier on "Antichrist," but takes over the heavy lifting in Claire's section and still commits to her role with raw authenticity. 

Emotionally distancing at times but never ice-cold, "Melancholia" proves von Trier has finally found a soul and a point in himself as a filmmaker. This time, depression has brought out the best in him, but now Mr. von Trier, take your Lexapro.

Grade: B +

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Roman Polanski: "Repulsion" a chilling high, "Ninth Gate" disappointing low

Repulsion (1965) 
105 min., not rated.
Grade: A

Three years before the auteur's creepily perfect "Rosemary's Baby," Roman Polanski's slow-burn descent into insanity quietly uncoils in "Repulsion," the writer-director's first English-language film. And it's no cheap horror film. Prior to becoming a star, Catherine Deneuve—a beautiful blonde zombie here—plays Carol, a lovely, virginal but disturbed young French woman living in London with her sister while working as a beautician. When Helen goes away on holiday with her adulterous boyfriend, the lonely, sexually repressed Carol sulks and starts to crack after she shuts herself in her apartment. 

Building at a leisurely pace, reality and nightmare blend into the bizarre, horrific hallucinations that Carol endures, such as a rape, murder, cracks in the walls, and hands protruding from the walls. The fever dream of "Repulsion" ranks alongside the American shocker "Psycho" and French shocker "Diabolique." Strikingly shot in black-and-white, and Chico Hamilton's high-tempo jazz score is a humdinger for the excellently disorienting sound design of clocks ticking, flies buzzing, water dripping, bells clanging, and sporadic inaudible scenes. Chilling and disturbing, "Repulsion" puts you through a claustrophobic wringer of isolation and madness. 

The Ninth Gate (1999) 
133 min., rated R.
Grade: C

After taking a five-year hiatus, Roman Polanski is back with "The Ninth Gate," an atmospheric but ponderous Faustian tale. It's like a lackluster brew that never comes to a full boil. 

A chameleon of his craft, Johnny Depp chain-smokes and acts as unscrupulous as Johnny Depp can playing sleazy mercenary antique-book dealer Dean Corso (great name). An expense-paid trip to Europe has him seeking the authenticity of a rare book by an academic collector (Frank Langella), who possesses one edition, hires him to find the other two long-lost volumes of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of the Shadows written by Mr. Scratch, Lucifer, ah yes, the Devil himself. As death and bad karma chase him (as do shady thugs), Corso gets more than he bargains for in his search for the damn book. Throughout, he's watched over by a mysterious chick (Polanski's chick, Emmanuelle Seigner) who can fly and disappear in a second's time. She could be a witch in a pact with the Devil, like one of Langella's lectures entails, but Polanski never explains her character or her powers. 

After a dizzying, entrancing opening credit sequence, Polanski uncoils this mumbo-jumbo at a slowly seductive, Gothic-European pace surrounded in ominous mystery, not unlike his "Rosemary's Baby," with bits of the director's sardonic wit. Interesting at the onset and silly thereon, "The Ninth Gate" is satanic nonsense that drags out its long investigation with a lot of strange, meaningless detours and predictable twists. May it be contributed to too many cooks in the kitchen—based on Arturo Perez-Reverte's novel “El Club Dumas” and the script credited to three writers, Polanski included—the film ultimately leads nowhere, besides a fade to white and then the credits. Some scenes share a striking resemblance to Polanski's own Frantic and Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" at a chateau for the robe-clad occult. 

Depp shows traces of tongue-in-cheekiness in his performance as Corso but he seems unengaged with the material. Lena Olin slinks around as the cat-scratching, crazy-bitch widow of an old late collector, and Langella froths at the mouth as Boris Balkan (another great name). Darius Khondji's good-looking cinematography and Wojciech Kilar's half-sinister, half-bumbling musical score are the only satisfying elements. Never have so many unanswered questions and unquestioned answers been so mysteriously muddled as they are in "The Ninth Gate." Polanski takes the easy way out, saying the Devil made him do it.

"Paranormal Activity 3" reliably spooky for the chilly fall season

Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
85 min., rated R. 

In the past seven years, each season of the witch guaranteed a "Saw" movie. But no longer are blood splatter and innards ruling your October treats! Now, a different kind of horror franchise has taken its place, starting with the 2009 found-footage novelty "Paranormal Activity." It was a genuinely disquieting little movie engine that could and its 2010 sequel "Paranormal Activity 2" cleverly integrated itself as a prequel. Third time's the charm for "Paranormal Activity 3," which goes back to sisters Katie and Kristi when they were just little girls. First, as "connective tissue" setup, in 2005, Katie (Katie Featherston) stored boxes of videotapes from their grandmother Lois' house in the basement of younger sister Kristi's (Sprague Grayden) house as she's still awaiting the birth of her baby Hunter. The next year, when Kristi's house was ransacked, apparently it wasn't just the necklace Katie gave Kristi that was missing, but the videotapes as well. (After all, that is how filmmakers make sequels.) 

From what the tapes recorded in 1988, Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) were living with their mother Julie (Lauren Bittner) and her wedding videographer boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), in a suburban home in Santa Rosa, CA. One night while the couple attempts to make a sex tape, an earthquake strikes and the time-coded video camera picks up something strange involving dust falling from the ceiling. Baffled but intrigued when reviewing the footage, Dennis is then inspired by Kristi talking to her invisible friend, Toby. He's tall, as old as grandma, and likes to play at night. So Dennis rigs video cameras around the house—one in the girls' loft bedroom, another in the master bedroom, and a third on a fan that pans from the kitchen to the living room—in hopes of catching some paranormal phenomena. 

For those that unreasonably doubted the validity or felt betrayed for not getting a backwoods bloodbath out of the documentary "Catfish," directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman know what they're doing. They expertly use space and timing to continue the spooks which made the first two movies so sneakily startling. Watching every corner and space of that viewfinder still rattles your nerves from the fear of the unknown. A few cuts and fake-out scares (characters appearing out of nowhere or jumping out to scare the "director of photography") feel too manufactured for a this-is-really-happening, vérité exercise, but no worries, there are enough doozies to make you keep the lights on at night. A camera mounted on the base of an oscillating fan, panning like a fly on the wall, is ingeniously milked for eye-covering tension and nervous chuckles. The dread boils as we anxiously await what might appear when the camera pans left to right. In one instance, homage is paid to both "Halloween" and "The Amityville Horror" as the girls' babysitter gets snuck up on by something under a ghostly white sheet. Other frightful opportunities that hold their own indelible jolts involve Katie and Dennis' lanky colleague Randy (a funny Dustin Ingram) saying "Bloody Mary" three times to a bathroom mirror with the lights off; a literal hair-pulling incident during the day time; a "magic trick" in the kitchen; a closet door that won't stay shut; and a Teddy Ruxpin stuffed bear that could be Chucky's buddy. But it's the doom-laden climax set in Katie and Kristi's grandmother's Moorpark, CA house, all darkness and POV-shot suspense, that will cause a palpable anxiety for its audience. 

This being a prequel to the first two "Paranormal Activity" movies, the source of Katie and Kristi's haunting childhood is answered and it makes sense in retrospect, but questions still remain. As we learned in the last film, there was a fire and Kristi didn't speak for months, but it seems such memories were cut from the finished product. Also, ninety percent of what you see in the trailer won't be found in the actual film; those "Catfish" guys always have enigmatic marketing on their side. "3" may not provide as much narrative payoff as it does in the scare department, but again, it's a reliably spooky creepout for the Halloween season. Rather than watching graphic torture, you'll be tortured by your fear of the dark. If you're not afraid of the dark, you will be. 

Grade: B +

Monday, October 17, 2011

On DVD/Blu-ray: Lame "Green Lantern" has charismatic Reynolds but little else

Green Lantern (2011)
114 min., rated PG-13.

A big-screen version of the DC Comics superhero, "Green Lantern," has been in development since 1997, when Kevin Smith first had dibs, but now after fourteen years, here we are. Another month, another superhero tentpole, "Green Lantern" is shiny, shallow, and silly, not getting off to the most enticing foot. As the boringly overblown exposition goes, an ancient race of aliens known as the Guardians have divided the universe into 3,600 sectors, one of which is the planet Oa where an elite group of protectors called the Green Lantern Corps. resides. Each Guardian has a ring that contains the most powerful force, the power of will, but a cloud monster known as the Parallax (with the power of fear) is killing those known as Green Lanterns. Did ya catch all that? 

Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a cocky, reckless test fighter pilot, suffers from—get this—D.I. (Daddy Issues, not Diabetes Insipidus). Taking after his late pilot father, Hal tests planes for an aeronautics company owned by the father of his fellow pilot and former lover, Carol Ferris (Blake Lively). One night, he's transported by emerald energy to the crash site of a purple-faced alien's spacecraft. Chosen by the dying alien's powerful ring, Hal is proclaimed a Green Lantern and later whisked to Oa to be trained. The ring gives Hal the cool power to conjure up anything out of thin air, such as a race track to save a helicoptor from crashing or crank out a chainsaw in a sword fight. Meanwhile, nerdy professor Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), whose senator father (Tim Robbins) sets him up to investigate the corprse of the purple-faced alien that Hal found. A piece of Parallax inside the corpse touches Hector, giving him telepathic and telekinetic powers as well as a giant, mutated forehead, and costs his sanity. 

Given the mythology and screenplay, Hal's Green Lantern is a third-stringer at best. Director Martin Campbell ("Edge of Darkness") moves this hokey superhero stuff at a brisk clip, but the four-person script (written by Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim, and Michael Goldenberg) is flimsy and cluttered, never using the green ring to its maximum potential. Early on, Hal's two brothers and his kid nephew are introduced, then abruptly never seen or heard from again. The history to why Hector is so jealous of Hal is reduced to an undernourished cliché. Also, the stakes couldn't be more lacking, as defeating Parallax seems like nothing much and there's not really a climax. What's more, no superhero movie is as good as its villain, and Parallax just resembles a gigantic blob of feces. 

Reynolds has the right stuff to headline a superhero movie, charisma and a cut physique, but he's given no developed character here. Given no other defining trait than being arrogant, Hal is the kind of hotshot that lacks responsibility and quits a task before it's finished. Peter Parker learned as Spider-Man that with great power comes great responsibility, but Hal doesn't really evolve. Lively is merely window dressing as Carol, the Lois Lane-type damsel-in-distress. But for once, the girl can actually tell who it really is behind the green sleep mask and unitard ("You don't think I would recognize you because I can't see your cheekbones?"). Sarsgaard is the most interesting "thing" here as Hector, going to the dark side and donning hideous Elephant Man make-up when he grows a big alien goose egg on his forehead. Unfortunately, Mark Strong is mostly wasted in purple make-up as the Corps leader Sinestro, as are Michael Clarke Duncan and Geoffrey Rush's voices, respectively playing the porcupine-looking trainer Kilowog and the fish-like Tomar-Re. 

Some of "Green Lantern" is cheesy and fun on the most rudimentary, "Flash Gordon"-type level, but mostly just cheesy. Warner Bros. can spend all the millions of green they want on the special effects, but the CGI-heavy action scenes look so processed and phony. Coming after the first chunk of end credits is a set-up for a sequel, but it's a nonsensical tease. A mediocre but not-terrible superhero entry, "Green Lantern" is more distraction than entertainment. Hopefully the tie-in roller coaster and the video game are more thrilling.


Sunday, October 16, 2011

DVD/Blu-ray: "The Tree of Life," "Terri," "The Trip," "Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer"

The Tree of Life (2011)
139 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B

In a filmmaking career spanning across nearly four decades, Terrence Malick has only directed five feature films. The enigmatic filmmaker clearly takes his time in developing his next project, and his fifth, "The Tree of Life," is Malick's most long-awaited. Famously protective of his private life, Malick is so reclusive that his producers accepted the Palme d'Or on his behalf at this year's Cannes Film Festival for this film. Like any piece of art, "The Tree of Life" seems to be such a personal and deeply felt piece of work that it was made more for the filmmaker himself than for an audience. A film should be judged on subjective opinion, not always the filmmaker's intentions. But (and it's a big 'but') "The Tree of Life" is ambitious, challenging, confounding, visually alluring, and pretentious. It will polarize, it will confuse, and it will frustrate. Warts and all, Malick's cinematic tone poem is breathtakingly beautiful and poetic. 

A narrative synopsis will not even scratch the surface of what "The Tree of Life" is really about. At its core is the O'Brien family living in suburban Texas during the 1950s. After a quote from the Book of Job, Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) receive devastating news that their 19-year-old middle son was killed. "Lord, why? Where were you?" pleads the mother as she's thrown into turmoil. In the present day, the O'Brien's eldest child, Jack (Sean Penn), is an architect living in the big city of Houston, but thinks about his brother's death every day. Malick then takes us back to the dawn of time, treating us to a formation of the universe, and back to the O'Brien couple as they give birth to Jack and, later, his two brothers. The film captures the getting-into-mischief boyhood of Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan) and their conflicting paths of grace (their mother) and nature (their father). Mrs. O'Brien doesn't really stand up to her husband when he loses his temper, but she allows freedom and only wants happiness for her three boys. Working a corporate engineering job but with a passion for music, Mr. O'Brien sees the world as corrupt, so his strict discipline is only to prepare them for their future. Jack comes to loathe his father, who has each of his sons practice punching with him. When Father goes on a business trip, Jack experiences rebellion, like strapping a frog to a small rocket and trespassing through a neighbor's house. 

As the mother, Chastain is luminous and lovely, like a nurturing angel with a playful nature and a true sense of grace. Balancing her out is a commanding Pitt, who alternates between disciplinary and affectionate as the tough-love father. He's an S.O.B. who's toughest on Jack probably because he sees a bit of himself in him. McCracken makes a very strong feature debut as the younger Jack, who even admits to having a side of his father in himself, and there's a nice contrast with Eppler's R.L. who looks like a real-life product of Pitt. 

As an ode to creation, death, and the meaning of life, Malick's storytelling is loose, nonlinear, and scant on dialogue (mostly whispered voice-overs) or actual story. Stunningly photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki, the camera roves around the yard as the children play, in and out of the house, and down school hallways. Early on, we see the beautiful baby feet of Jack being tickled by Father, and then Mother rinsing her feet in the sprinklers. Such images evoke the first sights and sounds of one's childhood. Douglas Trumbull, hired for Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," contributed to the organic effects work. And Alexandre Desplat's grand, portentous score is a symphonic poem itself, using orchestral samplings from Bach, Mahler, and Brahms. 

What is the meaning of it all? Malick leaves it up to each viewer's experience and interpretation. The languid, impressionistic visuals—birth of the cosmos, protozoa, volcanic eruptions, and dinosaurs—are visionary and awe-inspiring, but these passages never quite connect to the magnitude of the story. Neither do the bookending sequences with Penn, whose already-brief screen time was shaved in the final cut. This brings us to the ending, the brunt of Malick's pretensions but still thought-provoking. Jack sees his family as they were in the '50s, including himself as a teenager, and everyone in his own memory on a sandbar in what seems to be the afterlife. 

Visually, the film is exquisite to look at, but thematically, Malick does overreach a smidge. For those that aren't afraid to think and have a celestial slideshow wash over them, "The Tree of Life" will elicit more ambivalent feelings than just a dumbfounded "Huh?" Even if it doesn't completely cohere, there are real ideas at work here and bold ambition in the filmmaking, something lacking in most Hollywood fare. 

Terri (2011)
105 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

Experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs' son, writer-director Azazel Jacobs, has arrived on the feature side of film with 2008's "Momma's Men." Jacobs impressively follows it up with the indie "Terri," a quiet, slow, observant ode to adolescent loneliness. Newcomer Jacob Wysocki plays the title role of Terri Thompson, a sad, overweight 15-year-old outcast who doesn't do much to show that it bothers him. 

In the absence of his parents, he takes care of his over-medicated Uncle James (Creed Bratton), he likes eating beans on toast, and his only chore at home is to set up mouse traps in the attic (which he becomes fascinated with and continues in the woods). Being the butt of his peers' jokes, wearing pajamas to school and being chronically tardy every day, Terri gets called down to the principal's office of Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), a garrulous goofball that takes notice of him. When Mr. Fitzgerald calls him one of the "good-hearted" kids and schedules a weekly morning meeting to just talk, Terri feels betrayed that he's lumped with the other social rejects (one with Down Syndrome, another in a wheelchair, etc.). Meanwhile, Terri undergoes a sexual awakening with Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), his crush who becomes a pariah after she participates in a public sexual act with the class jerk, and he saves her from expulsion. Terri and Mr. Fitzgerald gradually build a mutual respect, and he forms a friendship with another misfit, wiry, hair-pulling troublemaker Chad (Bridger Zadina). Everyone is solitary and needy in their own way, which might be a normal, universal feeling. 

Writer-director Jacobs may lead you down familiar beats of a coming-of-age tale, with some comparison to 1995's "Angus," but "Terri" unfolds with compassion and a verisimilitude that's rare to find in this type of film. It's sometimes amusing too, but not in an arbitrary way; every moment comes from a human place. Wysocki, in his first feature film, is a natural as our physically lumbering, unself-conscious protagonist and never skips a truthful beat in Patrick deWitt's script that never mocks Terri. Reilly and all of the other little-known performers find nuance and an original quality in their characters. A scene, where Heather, Chad, and Terri experiment with liquor and pills and lose their inhibitions, captures clumsy teenagehood with uncomfortable honesty and tension. And we believe it. 

The film might not address why Terri lives with his uncle and detail where his parents went, or delve into Mr. Fitzgerald's rocky marriage that's sketchily mentioned, but these aren't important points. Jacobs isn't worried about loose ends or much narrative momentum either; it's his observational style and the actors' naturalism that makes the film a slice-of-life. Blessedly uncommercial as it is, "Terri" is modest and wise without being a didactic lesson. 

The Trip (2011)
107 min., not rated.
Grade: B -

Full of wine, scallops, and very British ribbing, "The Trip" is a trimmed-down feature film of the BBC TV series. It's largely improvised by British comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon who are playing funny and probably more talkative versions of themselves. Two sharp wits traveling, eating, and talking a lot doesn't sound like much, or the least exciting. But if two actors were to go on a road trip and keep the cameras rolling like a fly on the wall, it might as well be Coogan and Brydon. Coogan gets ready to accompany his girlfriend Mischa (Margo Stilley) on an assignment for The Observer to tour the north countryside of England, staying at cozy inns and eating at the finest, most pretentious restaurants. When she bails on him to take a break from their relationship in America, Coogan calls up colleague Brydon as his last resort when everyone else is "too busy." Brydon says goodbye to his wife and baby daughter and the pair sets off, trading impersonations, bickering, and doing a lot of eating. 

Director Michael Winterbottom not only makes a travelogue, a mockumentary, and a road comedy, but a midlife-crisis drama as well. Reprising their teaming in Winterbottom's "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" (2005), Coogan and Brydon are fun to watch. Their dueling impressions of Michael Caine, Al Pacino, and Sean Connery are hilarious, as is Steve's fake eulogy for Rob at Bolton Abbey and Rob's amazing "small man trapped in a box" voice. The quips just keep on coming as do the perfectly presented plates of lamb and chocolate desserts: Rob comments on his alcoholic martini tasting like a "childhood garden." The funniest bit has Steve trying, without being too rude, to walk away from an informative backpacker who's chattier than himself when it comes to the types of rocks on a cliff. Ben Stiller even makes an amusing cameo in a dream sequence, praising Steve for being wanted by all the filmmaking brothers (the Coens, the Wachowskis, the Farrellys, etc.). Once their trip is over and both men return to their respective homes, the contrast is there and it's surprisingly moving. Coogan, practically single and alone at forty-four years of age, still cavorts with women at each inn they stay and still desires to be a serious working actor (like Michael Sheen, as the two discuss). He's also constantly on the phone with his Hollywood agent and quasi-girlfriend, and in one call, his teenage son. Brydon may just have a mouth full of impressions going for him, but he's happy and content at home with his loving family. 

Draggy and repetitive in places, "The Trip" might've been snappier in its thirty-minute slot for six episodes. But it's a pleasant trifle that tastes as good as the food looks, even if sometimes you want to seal the two leads' Chatty Cathy mouths shut.

Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer (2011)
91 min., rated PG.
Grade: C

"Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer" has to be the zany, overcaffeinated sister to last year's charming "Ramona and Beezus" or even the likable "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" flicks with ADHD. Brightly colored as a box of crayons and cotton candy machine exploding all over the set, it's too bouncy and mega-energetic to be a complete bummer. But frenetic and in need of Ritalin are not the same as being silly and fun. 

Judy Moody (Jordana Beatty) has just graduated from the third grade and is all in a tizzy about having "a mega-rare, not bummer summer" vacation. Planning a summer of one-hundred thrills, she's psyched to share it with her closest friends, Rocky (Garrett Ryan) and Amy (Taylar Hender). But Judy's plans are thwarted when Rocky goes to circus camp and Amy to Borneo, leaving her with the less-cool Frank (Preston Bailey). Then she really gets into a mood when her parents inform her that they're taking a trip to California, leaving Judy and her younger brother, Stink (Parris Mosteller), alone with their father's sister, Aunt Opal (Heather Graham), whom they haven't met yet. With her aunt turning out to be a fun, creative guerrilla artist, Judy thinks up the idea of earning "thrill points" in a dare race against Rocky and Amy. While her friends are tightroping and swimming with sharks, Judy and Frank dare to go on a roller coaster, surf, and endure a creature double feature. 

Based on the "Judy Moody" book series by Megan McDonald, the screenplay by McDonald and Kathy Waugh has no real conflict, except the episodic throughline of Judy earning thrill points, a mystery involving teacher Mr. Todd's (Jaleel "Urkel" White) "cold" summer vacation, and a Big Foot subplot. Director John Schultz makes sure wee little kids won't be bored with cartoon sound effects of bellies rumbling and ketchup bottles squirting, subtitle sing alongs, and animated daydream interludes. In her first major feature role, Australian native Beatty is adorable and enthusiastic as Judy Moody, a free-spirited moppet with a mop of red bed head. And that's good because most would see Judy as a selfish brat when she doesn't get her way. Graham surprisingly doesn't mug her life away as Aunt Opal and gives it her all. She's wacky enough, a dippy bohemian that makes messy art projects in the living room and serves tangerine fondue with hot dogs and Fruit Loops for dessert. Opal hasn't driven in ten years either since her travels to Bali and such, so cue the irresponsible driving hijinks! And the blue Sno-Cone barf and "scat on a sandwich" gags! 

With "supermegatotally thrilladelic" as its tagline, this spastic Pippi Longstocking-esque recess is clearly trying too hard but just goes splat. Like Judy herself, "Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer" is all over the place and should get its "thrill points" deducted.