Monthly Archives: October 2009

The Skeptic (2009)


01skeptic_6006Starring: Tim Daly, Tom Arnold, Zoe Saldana, Edward Herrmann, Andrea Roth, Robert Prosky, Bruce Altman, LJ Foley
Director: Tennyson Bardwell
Screenwriter: Tennyson Bardwell

Inspired by last week’s great reviews I decided to watch more horror movies in spite of being a total pansy and as I started with “Orphan” – because of which I may start billing Skellington for all the electricity I’m wasting keeping the lights on at night, I continued with “The Skeptic”, given to me by the very sweet and considerate little monster that is my sister. I honestly don’t think there will be a third one; I am just not cut out for this.

“The Skeptic” tells the story of Bryan Becket, played by Tim Daly, who decides to move in his late aunt’s house as a warning to his wife who wants him more emotionally attached. He is very cold, calm and collected, a control freak that hates human bonding. His only friend and his wife both get the jerk treatment, as his calculating lawyer ways leaving no room for emotional blackmail and psychobabble.  That was at the beginning. But soon after he moves he starts to experience a series of inexplicable events. A supermodel psychic join him in his quest to find out what exactly I causing all the apparent supernatural phenomena that makes him question everything he believes in (or doesn’t believe in). He is, of course, The Skeptic.

Tim Daly (the only other thing I’ve seen him in is the TV show “Private Practice”, where I was frankly not impressed with his work, as I thought he was bland, had the mobility of a block of wood and the script tried too hard to make him kind and loving by showing cheesy lines down my throat) grows on me in this movie that requires from its main lead an intentional lack of expression and emotion. And by the end of it, I saw many scenes beautifully acted and a potential for more. It came as a shock to me, but he is very good in this role and about two potatoes out of these 6 are all his. His wife is Robin (Andrea Roth), and she is a little bit too preoccupied to be pretty and blonde for my taste. And the believer, played by Zoe Saldana, started out by being incredibly annoying, but she managed to integrate herself into the story and thus she became useful, but not irreplaceable.

The best actor in this movie is the house. Remember Norman Bates’ mother’s house? Well, this one is at the same level of emoting creepy vibes, only without the benefits of black and white cinematography; I don’t know if they built it or they actually used an existing one, but if someone lives there in real life, then in spite of the multitude of rooms and great architecture, I just cannot imagine any place I would want to be less. It is one of those houses that cannot stop screaming “haunted” even when in broad daylight. The director does a good job focusing on the strong cast, the close ups and tight frames make you afraid of what might happen outside the shot, in the background or in the eyesight of the respective character. These are the good.

The bad? The script is average bordering on nauseating, and the scare tactics are a little overused and clichéd. Some moments make you scream: “Enough already, stop trying to wedge in every leftover horror prop known to man!”, others just remind you of better movies where you saw that exact scene/take/framing. It is scary, yes, and its goal is thus achieved, but it is also completely unoriginal and I am under the impression that it somehow fails to impress the genre fans (which I am not, so it is just a supposition based on the horrible reviews, i.e. 8% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), who have more comparison material. The core story is good, but somehow not meaty enough to sustain an hour and a half of plot development. It could have been worse, but it also had the potential to be much, much better.

This movie is a decent slasher flick. It never amazes, never disappoints, it’s sometimes frightening, sometimes boring, it rests heavily on the actors’ shoulders and it fails at the creativity chapter, but for a night out with friends it will do just fine. Written in the ‘80s, it would have been a hit then, but it has clearly not aged well, as it is not making any waves now.

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Orphan (2009)


"Orphan" 0161.CR2

9

Starring: Isabelle Fuhrmanm, Peter Sarsgaard, Vera Farmiga
Director: Jaumet Collet-Serra
Screenwriter: David Johnson
Rating : R for disturbing violent content, some sexuality and language.

As soon as you see the trailer for “Orphan”, it’s pretty easy to write it off as standard slasher fare thriller, but surprisingly this is one of the few times when you’d be wrong. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (“House of Wax” , the silly 2005 remake) and writer David Johnson manage to break out a different kind of evil kid thriller, based on some of the classic cliches, yet remarkably original.

The orphan in the title is Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a bright, mysterious 9-year-old russian girl, adopted by Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John Coleman (Peter Sarsgaard), a young couple still trying to deal with the tragedy of their stillborn daughter. Kate and John already have two other children, a boy, Daniel and a deaf-mute little girl, Max. It might seems strange that the two would feel the need to adopt another child (other than it being a reason to trigger the plot), but it could be argued that perhaps they needed to fill the void left after losing their baby, sort of undo the unfortunate event. However, as the film progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that Esther is not all she seems to be and her inclusion in the family will prove to be a fatal mistake for the Colemans.

In all appearances, Esther is a poster child for good behaviour. She’s polite, well-mannered and has an overall “old-school” charm about her. All this is just for show unfortunately, as there is a far darker side of her that she hides with surprising ability. In fact, you could swear she’s just too mature for her age (and with good reason). In one scene, she displays advanced knowledge of sex and the usage of the F-word in that particular context, which is what tips Kate off that there may be more to Esther than meets the eye. Well, that and the fact that she broke a classmate’s leg by pushing her down a playground slide.

Something’s not quite right with Esther. On the other hand, something’s not quite right with the Colemans either. Kate struggles with alcohol addiction and John is trying to earn back Kate’s trust after having an affair some years in the past. The family is in a fragile state, with issues left in the backstages of their lives. But Esther seems more than keen to play with these issues, speculating their weakenesses, turning them against each other. She even turns their children on her side by means of aggressive intimidation. Now Kate slowly grasps Esther’s intentions, but who’s going to believe her ? She’s the one currently on therapy. Every time she tries to talk to her husband, he treats her like a mental case. By the time everyone realises what’s going on, it’s too late.

What makes “Orphan” so different from so many other thrillers ? First of all, its willingness to subject children to unspeakable on-screen perils. I mean, I don’t think I can name another film where grade school kids are treated this brutally. It’s unflinching in its display of preteen violence, which makes it all the more shocking. Then, there’s the great performance by Isabelle Fuhrman. According to IMDb.com she was 10 at the time (she turned 11 while filming), and it’s shocking to see her turn from sweet kid to cold-blooded manipulative homicidal girl. It’s not a simple task for a 10-year-old to play a psychotic killer convincingly, but she does it. Which is not to say her co-stars don’t do a great job. Vera Farmiga is wonderfull, turning a classic character type into a solid, convincing lead, powerfull enough to hold the film all by herself. Peter Saarsgard isn’t given much to do except act in defiance to his wife’s complaints, all the while being pleasant and mild mannered. He’s not a bad guy, it’s just that he seems too eager to trust Esther rather than his wife. He’s been the one with the guilty conscience up until now, so he probably feels it’s just the right time to shift the blame game on his wife. Lastly, I have to say I was surprised at the how well the script plays the psychological aspects of the broken family. It’s not terribly deep, but it just feels like it’s hitting all the right notes, despite having some of the good ol’ horror flick scare tactics.

There’s not a moment in the film where you can dismiss the plot as dumb, even when the twist towards the end turns the whole story on its head. It has that strength, to take hold of the audience and not let go until the credits start rolling. A solid cast and spine-tingling moments contribute fully to its strength, so don’t miss this one.

Black Christmas (1974)


black_christmas2

8

Starring: Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin
Director: Bob Clark
Screenwriter: Roy Moore
Rating : R

The slasher genre is probably one of the most popoular in the world for over 30 years now. The first of its kind was Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, though some would point out “Thirteen Women” (1932). Those were the precedents that gave birth to a world-wide phenomenon, the film that portrays the criminal endevours of a psychopathic killer. In time, the genre has suffered mutations, reaching out to such outlandish genres as Science Fiction, draining it of even the last molecule of originality. Freddie Kruger, Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, Hannibal Lecter, Leatherface, Chucky, Jigsaw are but a few of the names in the pantheon of horror. Among the films that set the rules straight where the 1974 classics “The Chainsaw Massacre” and “Black Christmas”. But it wasn’t until the box-office success of 1978’s “Halloween” that really helped the genre break out into the mainstream.

“Black Christmas” can safely be called a standard slasher. A sorority houe in Canada is terrorised by psychopath who makes obscene phone calls. Hidden in the attic of the house, he quickly makes the transition from harmless calls, to brutal executions, taking the girls out one by one, during the Christmas holiday.

The cast is largely unknown except for Olivia Hussey (Maria from “Jesus of Nazareth”) and Margot Kidder (Lois Lane from the original “Superman”). But, the true star is the unseen killer. There’s plenty of carnage going around but don’t expect any gore. The killer blows are mostly off-screen, or visually stylised to conceal any explicitness. The violence is reduced to a level of suggestion rather than the more modern showcasing of blood and guts (see “Saw”), with more efficiency in terms of suspense.

The moments that rely on atmposphere and tension work well and are interesting enough, even if everything feels just a little bit dated and too predictable (only because we’ve seen this done over and over again in countless clones). For example, there’s a scene where the police is trying to trace the call. Not these are the 70s, so don’t imagine any kind of hi-tech tracking gear. No, there’s this cop waiting at the phone company for the call. When the call does come, he has to run around in a big room full of ceiling-high mechanical machines to see which one connected the call. Obviously he doesn’t get it the first time around. Or the second. It’s all about how fast he can get to the right machine in order to find out the address where the call came from. This generates loads of tension, but it’s also funny compared to all this new slick technology on display in modern films.

Obviously, it’s no Oscar contender. Slasher flicks belong to a league of their own that does not require critical acclaim. In a way, they appeal to our darker side, which makes us tolerate these sinister stories. The quality level is subjective, depending on our likes or dislikes regarding the genre. In fact, the only reason why this gets a high poatato score, is because it was an original take on a subject that would never stop being remade.

Twilight (2008)


twilight

45

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Billy Burke, Peter Facinelli, Cam Gigandet, Nikki Reed, Elizabeth Reaser, Jackson Rathbone, Sarah Clarke, Ashley Greene, Anna Kendrick, Justin Chon, Kellen Lutz, Edi Gathegi, Rachelle Lefevre, Christian Serratos
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Screenwriter: Mark Lord, Melissa Rosenberg

Based on Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling novel with the same name, the debut of one of the most successful teen targeted franchises since the Olsen twins made millions in the ’90s by selling anything that could by signed and painted pink, „Twilight” is a movie that triggers two opposite reactions: hate – by the „too cool for anything this pathetic” individuals and love – by the „love is all around us and it’s fluffy” crowds. Of course, I am referring to teenage reactions, because any person above 17 and with a three digit IQ has enough sense to be neither impressed nor appalled: worst movies have been made (some won Oscars) and better movies, thank God, will still be made.

Bella (Kristen Stewart) is an average girl with an emo twist who moves with her father when she realizes that she is sort of standing in the way of her mother’s new marriage. Nobody says that she is, but she feels it, hence the emo twist. Her new home town is a perpetual rainy place where the people are simple and their minds cannot comprehend the complexity of Miss Swan’s intricate thought process and she thus is lonely and misunderstood. And just when you think she may be contemplating suicide, THE ONE  – you know, that fabulous soul mate that every movie teaches you to wait (if it’s a romantic one) or to find (if it’s a more modern and „feminist” one) , appears. His name is Edward Cullen and he has the great genes of Robert Pattinson, but he also has a little twist of his own: he is a 100 plus years old vampire who goes through possibly the worst drama of all: he has to relive high school over and over again. There is a bit of action provided by three unexpected undead visitors and the beginning of a love triangle that will fuel four more novels, over a thousand web sites and millions of fan wet dreams.

The movie is really better than what I expected. I’ve read the book, and I thank Mark Lord and Melissa Rosenberg for taking only a small fraction of Bella’s interior monologue and sparing me of „When life offers you a dream so far beyond any of your expectations, it’s not reasonable to grieve when it comes to an end.” or „It was a sea of darkness over my black overwhelming emotions and the sun will never rise again without Edward” (I may be paraphrasing the last quote, but you get my point). The first book being much better than the next three (yes, I’ve read them all, don’t judge!), they also have enough angst filled material  to tell a really well built teen romance, complete with alienation, fear of rejection, loneliness and the one thing all teens have in common: the conviction that this world revolves around them and their uniqueness. Also, the first novel of the “Twilight” saga depicts few events that underline the clumsy doormat personality of the main character, and the movie hides them well enough so that these annoying traits become practically invisible. A decent cinematography, some computer generated special effects (frankly, I’ve seen better in TV shows) and an overbearing feeling of depression and internal turmoil add their contribution to a relatable story, despite its fantasy premise. Adding a little action towards the end may have been the only thing that made me not fall asleep after what seemed like 1000 years of exposition.

The two main actors are above average. At first I thought Kristen Stewart may be one of the worst actresses ever, but she managed to make me like Bella, and I hated her in the books. The lines were the same, but she added a sense of fragility and shyness, and she seemed so uncomfortable all the time, exactly like a hypersensitive 16 year old would be, even though I am not sure that was acting or she was just playing herself. She had little to go on but she pulled it off. Robert Pattinson had even less to go on, as his character was a brooding seemingly perfect creature that treated his girlfriend like a 5 year old (sometimes rightly so), and every once in a while left her for her own good, but he managed to bring his character out of the abusive controlling type and, from time to time, even showed a shred of his patented charisma that will make you see what the fuss is all about. The rest are barely visible, but that is a good thing, as no one stands out as the worst link out of an already dull cast.

Over all, a decent portrayal of teenage angst, two chemistry filled leads and a compelling story (when it does not take itself too seriously), “Twilight” is the first part of a movie franchise that has the potential to break box office records.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)


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75

Starring: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer
Director: John Carpenter
Screenwriter: John Carpenter
Rating : R

John Carpenter is the undisputed champion of B flicks. The way he exploits violence and builds around an interesting enough plot, with style and wit, has earned him the title. “Assault on Precinct 13 is by now a classic in Carpenter’s filmography, all the more reason to make producers think they needed to make a remake in 2005 (and a surprisingly good one too).

The story unfolds in a gang-ridden L.A. where a war is underway between the law and the extremely well armed outlaws. Collateral damage in this urban conflict is a little girl, shot while getting ice cream. Her father declares his own kind of war on the gangs, kills their leader and runs to safety inside the now infamous precinct 13 (although it’s actually refered to in the film as Anderson Precinct, the 13 bit was added in the title by the producers to make it sound more ominous), which is currently closing down so it’s short on men and weapons. Coincidently, a prisoner transport also makes a stop at the precinct because one of the prisoners got sick. Part of the shipment of inmates is the feared psychopathic killer Napoleon Wilson, on his way to death row. The gangs organize a daring assault on the precinct to avenge their leader, and Officer Bishop, left behind to oversee the closing of the precinct, along with a few other people, including prisoners, prepare to fiercely fight for their own survival.

The idea itsef is perfect for an action film, the bad guys attack in waves, and the good guys attempt to find alternative survival methods with limited amounts of weapons and ammunition. John Carpenter first intended to do a western, but lacking the resources (money that is), decided to go for a gritty urban action film with a western touch. Action-wise it’s not terribly spectacular by today’s standards, but it does a better job by relying on good ol’ suspense and claustrophobic atmosphere. The characters and dialogue are typical western fare, from the good sheriff type (Bishop) and the ruthless morally ambiguous bad guy (Wilson), to the swarm of outlaws beating down the door in a classic western alamo scenario. The interesting idea here is that of the cops and robbers joining forces in order to survive, but it’s not really explored in a serious fashion. It’s just an excuse for tense action. The actors are largely unknown even to this day, which I consider effective for its realism.

The 2005 remake contains an entirely modified storyline and characters (a lot more stars in the cast). What they keep is the basic idea of the siege, which is, obviously, the whole concept of the original. It also concerns itself more with gimmicky action, indeed superficial, but just as much fun, particularly since it has a larger budget to work on. It’s pretty difficult to recommend on of the two. As I said, I personally would go for the remake, and action/violence fans will probably choose the 2005 film as well, but if you are a Carpenter fan (as I am), and you enjoy the classics, or you just hate remakes for what they really are : cynical excuses for producers to make money, you should turn to the original. After all, the remake can’t exist without the original story it’s based on.

Assault on Precinct 13 (2005)


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8

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, Gabriel Byrne, John Leguizamo
Director: Jean-François Richet
Screenwriter: James DeMonaco
Rating : R for strong violence and language throughout, and for some drug content.

This 2005 film is a remake of the 1976 John Carpenter classic, produced by the same people who brought us “Training Day”, and it was certainly a surprise on a market saturated with frame-by-frame copycat remakes like 2006’s “The Omen”, an uninspired carbon copy of the original featuring improved visuals and a bad Gregory Peck imitation by Liev Schreiber. “Assault on Precinct 13” delivers unusual signs of intelligence, scarce enough to warrant its B flick status, but enough to keep one awake.

In the original, Bishop was the fearless “sheriff”, forced to protect his precinct from scores of cop-hating thugs. Now, the Bishop of this film is Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), an extremely dangerous criminal (the old Napoleon Wilson character, this time more street), caught after murdering an undercover cop in a church (that’s just how badass he is). The “sheriff” is a Sgt. Roenick (Ethan Hawke), former undercover officer, now hiding behind a desk, pumping himself full of alcohol and pills to forget about an unfortunate undercover stint which ended with two of his colleagues getting killed because of his bad call. The 13th precinct (this time actually called 13) is still being closed down (right on New Year’s Eve), which once again means not enough police and not enough guns. The prisoner bus transporting Bishop and a handful of other prisoners is rerouted to precinct 13 because of a higway accident. With all plot requirements in place, the siege is ready to commence.

The big change from the ’76 version is that the attackers this time are corrupt cops, scared that if Bishop gets to the trial he’ll rat them all out. So it’s clear that not one of the people inside the precinct are supposed to make it out alive, as the leader of the bad guys Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne) overstates, they have to “put them all down, without pause, without regard”. Roenick decides to release and arm the prisoners and work together in a fragile alliance in order to survive. I would have to say this version adds more to the police and criminals fighting side by side idea. There’s always a sense of tensions added to it. Then there’s also the irony of the criminals helping the cops, while bad cops try to kill them all. While the original was a sort of urban western story concerned with building atmosphere, the remake feels like “Die Hard” in an abandoned precinct concerned more about building a traditional plot with twists and cliches, sometimes annoyingly predictable, yet at times surprising. Jean-Francois Richet seems aware of the constraints of the genre and manipulates these cliches in his favor, although one of the most annoying ones is that of the traitor within the precinct. It’s annoying because it’s so painfully obvious, it’s like there’s a tag that spells “traitor” on him. Maybe it was supposed to divert attention since traitors are rarely this obvious, but no, not here. Still, there is surprise in the way the characters are killed off, even though the film dispenses of them almost in slasher fashion, it’s still less obvious who’s going to bite the bullet, and that’s a big plus. Also, this time there’s the perspective of the bad guys, polarised by a dominant villainous figure, which turns the siege in a strategic confrontation of sorts.

Although I’m an admirer of Carpenter’s work, in the case of “Assault on Precinct 13”, I preffer the 2005 version, although the potato score differs very little. It’s a solid action film, much less a remake, but a complete reconstruction with the original as the foundation, not as the blueprint. There’s more action, a solid, well selected cast, an entertaining plot with some nice touches and an interesting directorial vision that in the end serves the same ideas that made the original a B classic.