Monthly Archives: November 2009

A History of Violence (2005)


Starring : Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, William Hurt, Ed Harris
Director : David Cronenberg
Screenplay : John Olson
Rating : R for strong brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some drug use.

David Cronenberg is a true artist. His films are the kind that you either instantly hate or instantly love. His vision is always uncompromising and almost always bleak and depressing. He focuses on the dark core of humanity, questioning the reality his characters inhabit, whether it is the life they live or the world they live it in. Brutal, dark, original and thought-provoking, Cronenberg’s vision is just as vivid in one of his most recent succeses “A History of Violence”.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a model citizen. He lives in a small town, he’s married, has two kids, a cozy household, and owns a modestly succesfull diner. The peaceful life he so much enjoys is torn apart when two psychopatic killers attempt to rob his diner. He guns both of them down with extreme prejudice, turning him into a local hero. His celebrity unfortunately extends beyond the borders of the small town, attracting unwanted attention from Philadelphia mobster Richie Cusack (William Hurt) who sends Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) and a couple of henchmen to bring back Tom who they believe is Richies’s brother, a former assassin for the mob who dissapeared a long time ago. Fogarty and his crew shake things up in the small peaceful rural living while Tom himself must bring back some of his past bad habits in order to save his new life, and the life of his family.

While more accesible than his past films, this is still Cronenberg at his best. A psychologicaly tormented lead male character, borderlining split personality, who denies his life as hellraiser Joey Cusack, clearly a psychopatic killer back in the day, while maintaining his current identity as family man Tom Stall, under the pressure of his violent past coming back to haunt him. Definetly right up Cronenberg’s alley. What’s also interesting is how Joey/Tom’s history of violence is reflected on his family in the way their psychology bends almost as if organically reacting to the new identity of the family head. Tom’s deceit and the thought of his criminal past has devastating effects on the family psyche, provoking unusual behaviour. Their adolescent son explodes with violent rage against the local bully in an act of rebellion motivated by his loss of the male role model he identified with, Tom and his wife engage in very rough sex on the staircase (borderline S&M), venting their frustrations, a mix of love and hate, right after she just lied to the local sheriff about Tom’s true identity, herself deeply conflicted about accepting this new man in her life. All of it underlines deep changes in their lives, with the new Tom being the root of all evils, unleashed on their unsuspecting innocence. He’s both the problem and the key to solving their dilemma. The question is : will they now accept him for who he really is, which will probably mean a new beginning ? Standard issue with stories like this, but Cronenberg doesn’t go for the cliches even if the solution to Tom’s problems is easy to forsee. In the end, the only way to ensure his quiet life is to violently kill his past. Now, usually this is a paradox very familiar to action films, but Cronenberg doesn’t do Arnold Schwarzenegger films, so the big climax is a dialogue between Tom and Richie (fantastic line delivery by William Hurt, nominated for an Oscar), which of course ends in violence, but is basically built on tension and character motivations rather than nonsensical shoot’em up.

Since violence is the foundation of this film, it certainly won’t dissapoint gore hounds. Cronenber himself is a crafty director when it comes to blood and guts. “A History of Violence” depicts hardcore violence intentionally framed in gross close-ups and carefully choreographed. He does not glorify it, but instead throws it in our faces in all its horrifying details. This enhances the effect of the story in a way, since it’s all about the violence in these character’s life, how it grows within our society, and acts as a catalyst for our inner demons.

So what is essentially a thriller, pushes the lines of conventional cinema with style and subliminal usage of violence, allowing the viewer to form their own conclusions while being entertained by the perfect acting and tense atmosphere. A must-see.

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Stargate (1994)


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six

Starring : Kurt Russel, James Spader, Jaye Davidson, Alexis Cruz
Director : Ronald Emmerich
Screenplay : Ronald Emmerich & Dean Devlin
Rating : PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.

With Roland Emmerich’s “2012” plowing through multiplexes all over the world, I thought, why not go back to one of Emmerich’s older, disaster-free sci-fi epics ? Since there are but a few that do not feature the total destruction of famous landmarks, I picked “Stargate”, Emmerich’s first big-budget Hollywood epic and starting point of a cult following that was picked up by a (very) long-running TV series.

The plot starts off in 1928 with the discovery of a strange artifact in Egypt, then moves on to present day, where Daniel Jackson (James Spader), a goofy Egyptologist with some weird theories, is recruited by the government to help in translating ancient tablets for a research project which is, not surprisingly, connected to the artifact found in 1928. The research concludes that the said discovery is in fact a portal which requires a set of 7 symbols to open up a wormhole to alien worlds. Cue in the military, which put Col. O’Neill (Kurt Russel) in charge of the expedition to see what lies beyond the “gate to the stars”. Soon after they go through, they find themselves on a desert planet and realise they do not have the required 7 symbols to return home. As they explore the planet, they stumble upon a primitive civilisation of humans which turn out to be slaves used by malevolent alien forces led by an incarnation of Ra (yes, the Egyptian sun god), who apparently built the pyramids on Earth. The plot thickens considerably along the way, and it all builds to a typical blockbuster climax which involves a nuclear weapon with the obligatory digital countdown timer, fist fighting, Daniel saving the love of his life, a desert battle where bullets are obviously no match for laser-slinging flying ships, and the line “Give my regards to King Tut, asshole !”.

The film flows nicely for whatever running time it takes them to activate the stargate and go through it (which must be about 20 minutes). After that, the pacing feels a bit erratic. There’s no build-up, just a sequence of discoveries and explanatory dialogue briefly punctuated by bursts of visual effects and some action, which makes it hard to get excited about what you’re seeing. In fact, it’s far from Emmerich’s action-packed epics that followed, at least in that regard. You would almost think that it’s deliberately taking its time to construct a plot, but in fact it’s just superficially maneuvering through a check-list of cliches just so it can have those impressive action scenes at the end. It all feels like it’s on autopilot and when the big face-off arrives, you realise just how little you’ve seen in terms of creativity. Clearly, the TV series was an improvement, providing a better feel of the Stargate universe, since the film is dissapointingly limited in scope.

When they actually get down to business, the visuals are pretty impressive, especially since they’re 15 years old. The FX have aged well, though you can easily spot the rudimentary CGI, because they stick out like a sore thumb. But, the miniatures and more practical photography effects are still pretty neat. The look of the alien hi-tech Egyptian style makes for some very pleasing eye-candy that basically supports the lack of interesting plot/dialogue. Kurt Russel can certainly play it cool. It’s refreshing to see him bravely take on all that square-jawed macho B.S. That “King Tut” line belongs to his character, and, boy, does he deliver it, or what ? He’s clearly been in this kind of B flick special effects extravaganza before and just runs with it. Spader is just as much fun as the airheaded scientist who becomes a saviour of sorts, but Ra, played by Jaye Davidson is only marginally interesting and doesn’t make a very solid villain which is a shame actually, because a villain can make or break a sci-fi film like this.

All in all, it isn’t Emmerich’s most impressive film, and this is coming from someone who expects nothing but mindless fun and total destruction from the man. Despite some honorable ambitions and fun moments, it fails to muster the enthusiasm that the seemingly endless seasons of the TV series did, although in all fairness, this is where it all started. I can’t imagine how the producers got around to spinning the concept for television, but in the end, it was a far more inspired idea than Emmerich’s big screen effort.

Good Luck Chuck (2007)


goodluckchuck

2

Starring: Dane Cook, Jessica Alba, Dan Fogler, Lonny Ross
Director: Mark Helfrich
Screenwriter: Josh Stolberg

I had a bad feeling about going to see this movie and I tried to convince my friend not to go, but my main two arguments -“I have never seen anything funny starring Dane Cook” and “I do not think Jessica Alba is an actress”- somehow failed against “You have never seen one of his stand-ups” (true) and “She is hot” (also true). While reading Rotten Tomatoes Top 100 Worst Movies Ever, I came across this title, and I remembered my pain and suffering and regret over spending about $10 (including popcorn and soda) on something so excruciating that it made my root canal appointment seem like Disneyland.

“Good Luck Chuck” tells the improbable tale of a dentist (yes, that is exactly why I said root canal), Charlie Logan (Dane Cook), who has a unique quality: every woman he dates/sleeps with ends up marrying the next guy she meets. He was hexed when he was a child, and now, in adulthood, his current status and reputation helps him get so many women he cannot keep up with, because evidently he is the gateway to women’s heaven: marriage (gag me!) . He meets and falls in love with Cam (Jessica Alba), a penguin zookeeper, that is the ideal mix of beauty and smarts, but she has a twist too: she is clumsy to the extreme. Shenanigans ensue. Of course he has an obnoxious fat friend whose only purpose is to make him look like a prince because he does not pretend he’s somebody else to get laid and he does not fuck a grapefruit on his spare time. Of course her constantly falling and generally being embarrassing to the human race is charming. Of course they love each other but the „situational comedy” keeps them apart. Of course Dane Cook is funny. And of course Jessica Alba could be a scientist.

One of this movie’s major flaws is that it is simply not funny.  I can take slapstick humor. I can take dirty jokes („Clerks”, anyone?). I can suspend my disbelief that such people could possibly exist on an oxygenated planet. I really have no problem with very beautiful women coupled with generic looking men (I liked „Knocked Up”). I can see the charm of a funny man (fine, I admit: I am a Seth Rogen fan). I do not expect life lessons or philosophy out of a comedy script. I laughed during „The Proposal”, for God’s sake, and it was about two walking clichés bantering! But when I go to see a comedy, romantic or otherwise, it better be funny. It better have at least one fresh, innovative, clever joke, and at least ten mediocre ones. And the leads do not have to be Oscar winners, but they better have the charisma and comedic timing to pull through the delivery of lines without making it seem like a school play where everybody is looking at their mommy in the audience for approval.

The second is the leads’ lack of appeal. I do not want to start talking about acting skills, because this particular script has no need for them, not even Meryl Streep can resuscitate this train wreck. But to manage to gain the audience, to make everybody root for the main characters, they need to be likeable. Dane Cook may be a great guy and a worthy actor, but he just makes you want bad shit to happen to him. On screen, that is. He is like Ashton Kutcher: not as funny as he thinks he is, and desperately trying to prove his genius. Even Demi’s husband seems more relaxed when “acting”, and his Twitter persona seems like a genuinely nice guy. But the 30 year old man-child shtick is not attractive and not amusing; it’s just boring and overdone. And Jessica is a pleasure to watch, she really brightens the screen every time she smiles, too bad her role has her talking.  She deserves her spot on any “most beautiful” top, but I think she and Jessica Biel have the same problem: nobody takes beauty seriously. Next think you know, they will declare it a handicap and ask for damages. Because Charlize Theron is ugly, did you not see “Monster”?

Overall, a movie already forgotten by almost everybody except Rotten Tomatoes and me, and a step by step demo of how easy it is to make millions even without direction, script, actors or a plausible premise: just take a funnyman and a vixen; throw in some sex and bathroom jokes, cute animals, over promote the hell out of it and voila: the movie everybody saw and nobody wanted to see.

Good Luck Chuck (2007)

Drag Me to Hell (2009)


drag_me_to_hell

9

Starring : Alison Lohman, Justin Long, David Paymer, Lorna Raver
Director : Sam Raimi
Screenwriter : Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi
Rating : PG-13 for sequences of horror violence, terror, disturbing images and language.

A lot of people have been eagerly awaiting the day when Sam Raimi would leave Spiderman behind and go back to his horror roots. And yes, that day has come. ”Drag Me to Hell” is in a way the spiritual sequel to his “Evil Dead” series, and a return to full form for the master of demon trouble. Definetly a good thing after his atrocious mess of a movie, “Spiderman 3”.

The victim of evil forces this time is a young woman, Christine Brown (Alison Lohman). She’s a loan officer at a Los Angeles bank and very close to getting a promotion, if, as her boss (David Paymer) puts it, she can prove she’s ready to make some tough decisions. One of those tough decisions walks through the door that very day in the form of Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), an old gispy woman who needs an extension on her mortgage. This is just the opportunity Christine needs to prove herself. She denies her the extension. Mrs. Ganush begins to beg on her kness, Christine calls security and the old woman feels she’s been humiliated. Next thing Christine knows, she’s being attacked in the underground parking lot by the now demonic incarnation of the old woman, who lays a curse on her. The curse is one of terrible consequence, as Christine finds out from Rham Jas (Dileep Rao), a fortune teller : the demon Lamia will toy with her for 3 days, and then will drag her to hell where she will enjoy the usual eternal torment, unless she can find a way to break the curse. Bummer for Christine.

This is the perfect set up for Raimi to go to town on Christine. The film is relentless in its scares, and it’s one nightmarish scene after another. The film wasn’t even rated R (though there is an Unrated version out there as usual), but it still packs a punch, to Raimi’s credit without any gore, but some really disturbingly disgusting moments that will make you squirm in your favourite chair. There are unsettling moments that play with the classic cliches of demon attacks, providing scares that seem to come out of nowhere. You can use the fingers on one hand to count the quiet, demon-free moments in this 99-minute scream-fest. But it’s also very tongue-in-cheek, so there’s a feeling of relief at times, even comic-relief, but then it gets all spooky again and you don’t feel like laughing anymore…that is until a possessed man starts dancing in mid-air.

The effects are really cool-looking and Raimi’s signature camera-work adds a lot of frantic edginess to the action. The CGI sometimes ruins the disgusting bits, but that won’t make much of a difference (it might even be a relief). You never actually see the demon in full FX. It always finds ways to twist Christine’s world to the point of driving her insane, so there’s never a sense of CGI overpowering the atmosphere. And did I mention there’s no gore ?

The story focuses a lot on Christine, so we never get too much insight on the other characters. The most interesting of the is her boyfriend Clay (Justin Long), who is unusually supportive of her, even though he doesn’t believe in demons. What does he know, right ? But this is esentially a showdown between the leading lady and the evil spirit, much in the same way that “Evil Dead” was about Bruce Campbell facing off with the forces of darkness. It’s not about ensemble work, so don’t expect any solid or notable supporting characters. Alison Lohman does stand up to the challenge wonderfully in keeping herself convincing not just as the nice girl, but especially as the paranoid victim of a relentless demon. She’s likable, determined and surprisingly resilient, just what the horror audience demands from a heroine. Her boss demanded of her to be tough and the irony of her character is that, by the end of it all, she’ll be making all kinds of hellish decisions.

“Drag Me to Hell” is a deliciously wicked horror, packed with scares and action. If you’ve been a fan of Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” trilogy, or maybe “The Exorcist”, or you’re just looking for a thrill ride, then this is the film for you.

Trick ‘r Treat (2008)


trick-r-treat-1

9

Starring : Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Dylan Baker, Leslie Bibb
Director/Writer: Michael Dougherty
Rating : R for horror violence, some sexuality/nudity and language.

Here’s the perfect example of an overlooked gem. This film had a real tough time making its way into the hands of the public. Though it was supposed to be released on Halloween  2007, Warner Bros decided to withdraw it and reschedule it. Two years had passed and still no release date, so the studios decided to dump it as a direct-to-DVD release. And since Halloween was just a couple of days ago, this reviewer decided to get himself into the spirit of All Hallows’ Eve.

The plot interweaves four separate stories that take place on Halloween night, in a tight narrative similar to “Pulp Fiction”. There is the murderous principal Wilkins who enjoys Halloween perhaps a bit too much, five teenagers who bring an homage to the victims of what is known as the “School Bus Massacre”, Laurie, a 22-year old virgin dressed as Little Red Riding Hood, on a mission to find boys, and Mr. Kreeg, the old man that hates Halloween in a very “Scrooge” kind of way, and is about to get a close encounter of the painful kind with the Halloween spirit. I will not go to more detail about the plot, since A) there’s too much fun to be had from discovering the story while watching the film, and B) there are complete and very spoilerish synopsises on Wikipedia or IMDb.

Why am I so enthusiastic about this film ? Well, probably because the horror genre is so hopelessly taken with torture porn (see “Saw”) nowadays that it’s refreshing to be confronted with such a charmingly twisted and original entry in the genre. It’s a nostalgic look on how we used to be scared when listening to boogeyman stories. A return to basics. It’s about those sleeping-with-the-light-on-and-making-sure-the-closet-door-is-closed kind of frights that fill the darker side of our imagination. The film is not particularly scary (although, for some, I might not be a reliable source on this), but builds plenty of suspense and a constant atmosphere of dread. There is some gore, so squeamish types beware, but carnage is not the main focus here. It’s also very reliant on practical FX which I personally thought was a very nice touch, so no CGI here, thank god.

The story is pure Halloween love affair. As I understand, Michael Dougherty already made an animated Halloween short in 1996 called “Season’s Greetings”, so the man was just burning to get this one out. All four stories will be a familiar taste to fans of creepy TV show like “Tales from the Crypt”, but able writing and excellent visual handling help freshen up the standard material with style. Some might even identify a slight comic-bookish approach in the narrative. The one thing that I felt was missing was witty dialogue, but it’s not something you’ll necessarily miss. It’s a lot of fun to watch the stories unfold and tie-in into each other, making the chronology of events pretty jumbled but kept in order by familiar character run-ins so there’s no confusion. Also, the short length keeps the pacing running smoothly without any boring moments that might encourage a closer look at possible plot holes.

Overall “Trick ’r Treat” is definetly more treat than tricks. Everything is in place for a new Halloween classic, and there’s a good chance that not only fans of the genre will find it worth watching. So, Amelie, I’m saving money for you electricity bill, ‘cause you have to see this one.