Tag Archives: 2008

Trick ‘r Treat (2008)


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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.

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Twilight (2008)


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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.

Punisher War Zone (2008)


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2

Starring: Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Doug Hutchinson, Julie Benz
Director: Lexi Alexander
Screenwriter: Nick Santora, Art Marcum
Rating : R for pervasive strong brutal violence, language and some drug use.

Why ? Why was there need for another Punisher reboot ? WHY ?! The ’89 Dolph Lundgren version was a flop, upsetting even the fans of the comics. The 2004, Thomas Jane-John Travolta venture was fairly good but it certainly didn’t beg for a sequel. And still, Marvel insists on greenlighting not just a sequel, but a third attempt at starting up a franchise, perhaps hoping for a trilogy or a quadrilogy. The result however is a miserable failure.

Frank Castle, aka the Punisher (Ray Stevenson) is a former member of US special forces, whose family was killed by mobsters while enjoying a picnic in Central Park. After the incident, Castle becomes a ruthless vigilante whose objective is to annihilate organized crime, one head at a time. “War Zone” starts off with the Punisher’s assault on the mansion of Gaitano Cesare, a mob head freshly released from the grasp of justice. During the assault, he desfigures mobster Billy Russoti (Dominic West) and accidentaly kills an undercover FBI agent. This turns Castle away from the thug-hunting game for a while. Russoti then becomes the comic book villain Jigsaw, cooks up a revenge plan, springs his psychotic brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchinson) from the assylum, gathers every thug he can from the streets of New York, waging war against a now remorse ridden Punisher, forcing him to return to his violent ways.

I can’t say that I’m a stranger to the Punisher universe, but I’m also not the type that holds the source material as reference for any film (which is probably why I liked the 2004 adaptation). I’ve always liked the idea of the character, as much as I enjoy all anti-heroes and revenge stories. Basically, Frank Castle is a psychopath. He kills bad guys not for revenge, he’s gone way past emotions, but from a distorted sense of justice without limits. His judgement doesn’t tolerate any grey areas. It’s all black or white, guilty or not guilty. This film does not dig deeper into the character’s psychological depths, the moral purgatory, the trauma of violently losing his family which triggered his transformation into the blood-thirsty vigilante. What the film does is to keep itself busy with an overblown affection for over-the-top violence and comic-bookish caricatures. New York is actually shot in Canada, wasting much of the bleak urban feeling with anonymous neon-lit back alleys and rooftops. The bad guys are such grotesque, badly acted jokers that I wasn’t sure sure whether or not they were supposed to be there for comic relief rather than antagonists for the Punisher. Ray Stevenson, familiar to most from the HBO TV series “Rome”, is reduced here to an inexpresive hulk, fitting in terms of physical stature, but otherwise wasted in a part that doesn’t even seem to have any script behind it. There are few moments where he is allowed to show emotion, but it’s usually just him versus hordes of thugs. Here’s a grand example of “witty” dialogue : when confronted by a pries with the line : “Go with God”, Castle responds : “Sometimes I would like to get my hands on God” … I rest my case. Oh, and there’s also a plot element regarding the wife and child of the FBI agent Castle killed, played by Julie Benz, but it’s just there to send Castle back into the wasting-bad-guys business while assuring us he’s still a human being.

Though grossly suffering from a lack of originality, the film shows competence in its action scenes, but the effort seems pointless because it is very difficult to take the whole thing seriously. In fact, any attempt to take this film seriosuly will probably result in brain injury. The best remedy is to just laugh it away, whenever you’re not turned off by the gore.

It’s clearly an attempt at pleasing the fans just enough to warrant a franchise. I mean, it’s the kind of film that feels offending intellectually for some while scaring others away with its ugly kind violence. So in the end, the only people left who might enjoy it are the members of its already established comic book fanbase. But judging from the pathetic box-office performance, even they’ve been insulted.

Saw V (2008)


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1

Starring: Costas Mandylor, Tobin Bell, Julie Benz
Director: David Hackl
Screenwriter: Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan
Rating : R for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture, language and brief nudity.

“Saw” has become some kind of institution. Every year, on Halloween, everyone knows a new entry in the franchise is released, and there are certainly plenty of fans of cinematic carnage who provide a hefty financial boost for Lionsgate Studios and the two creators of this horror franchise, James Wan and Leigh Wannel, who never forget to place their names in the credits as executive producers.

There’s a certain point the franchise has reached, where I feel like the script writing process is more similar to the writing process of TV series’ scripts. How do we move the story along ? Who stays for the next episode ? Who dies ? What cliffhanger ending sould we have for this episode ? For those who are familiar with the “Saw” universe, it is a well known fact that the story is very complicated with a twisty plot that spans five films so far and will probably go on for a few more. It’s so thick now in fact, that every new film in the series will probably require a “Previously on Saw” intro. Otherwise, it’s risky to start watching it, as the story goes back and forth inside its Jigsaw chronology quite a lot. In fact, they’ve gone so far in extending Jigsaw’s world and the franchises’s existence, that they’ve lost whatever good ideas they had going in, managed to remove the villain with a flimsy excuse for one, and occupy too much time with tying loose ends in previous “episodes”.The Jigsaw traps, a trademark of the series, once symbolic and meant to reflect the darkness of human nature and test the limits of survival have become increasingly elaborate pieces of art direction, built by a whole team of people, rather than just the two-three the writers want us, the naive audience, to believe.

It would be pointless to start giving a synopsis since it’s what basically holds the franchise together : not knowing what the next film is about. The marketing machine knows it and plays it so. I can say that this is the first entry after the last 3 that is not directed by the infamous Darren Lynn Bousman, but the new addition to the team, David Hackl, brings just as much to the franchise as Bousman did : absolutely nothing. The directorial vision is most likely being dictated by David A. Armstrong’s bleak and sleazy cinematography and Kevin Greutert’s schyzophrenic editing. Also, someone had the hilarious idea of casting Costas Mandylor as a villain. I can’t imagine what they were thinking. I mean, the man simply can’t act to save his life, and all of a sudden he becomes the evil center of a horror franchise. It’s an idea more sinister, actually, than the concept of Jigsaw himself. Tobin Bell had a good grip on his creepy character and the man can actually act, despite being cast through time in good films but mostly as an unimportant evil henchman or menacing guy at the street corner. His deep, grouchy voice has become a staple of the series. The man was legend. And now he turns it over to Costas Mandylor ?! Oh, the horror !

Good news however for the gore hounds : there’s plenty of it, though less shocking, slightly less explicit and very, very gratuitous. Gratuitous, because there’s no connection between the audience and what’s going on onscreen. It’s no longer about Jigsaw dealing a sort of twisted justice and people surviving his traps. The violence is a trademark here, but it’s nothing more than that anymore. It’s all heavily edited with a loud industrial soundtrack and plenty of screams added for fun, but it’s hollow and pointless. Jigsaw’s been reduced to basic serial killer fare, which it already was, really, but never so obvious.

All in all, “Saw 5” is an ugly, violent, overblown, stupid, badly acted, boring and pointless film. I suppose the sixth will be more of the same and something extra on top of it. I just hope that the makers of this behemoth of crap realise they need to stop, at least out of compassion for a brutalised audience.

Defiance (2008)


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6

Starring: Daniel Craig, Liv Schreiber, Jamie Bell
Director: Edward Zwick
Screenwriter: Clayton Frohman si Edward Zwick
Rating : R for violence and language

Edward Zwick’s specialty as a Hollywood director are epic films. Indeed he has a keen eye when it comes to that particular brand of cinema. His might not be the most original films ever ( like his “Last Samurai” being like “Dancing with Wolves” but with samurai instead of indians ), but they deliver. It’s basic, slightly exploitive, professional cinema, preying on emotion and relying on cliches.

One such film is “Defiance”, based on a true untold story from the Second World War, involving a group of approximatively 1000 eastern-european jews that escaped the nazi extermination machine by forming a small community in the woods, where they fought to survive against both the harshness of nature and the cruelty of man. The underground movement was led by the Bielski brothers : Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liv Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell), who had lost their own families so they decide to make a stand. At first they dish out some old fashioned revenge, but as the group grew in numbers, among them women and children, they form their own settlement deep in the woods, to keep them safe from the war. Tuvia and Zus have separate views on the management of the small community, and so Zus runs off and joins the local partisan movement, while Tuvia stays on as leader of the camp. The film’s timeline covers a period of time from the autumn of 1941 to spring, 1942. The plot contains crucial points like the settlers being forced to relocate after being discovered, characters obtaining food any way they can, chilling blue hued winter scenes, mutiny, sibling rivalry, romance in the face of despair, and it all concludes in good ol’ Hollywood fashion with a run-for-your-lives finale which puts the survivors face to face with the nazi army.

The film deserves recognition for telling a story I don’t recall ever hearing about. It deserves, however, a good bashing for being a less than involving film than the story deserves. Originality might not be Zwick’s forte, but there’s no excuse for all the cliches in there, with characters and routines that are way too familiar from other standard Hollywood epics. If it wouldn’t have been such an interesting story to tell, there would have been little worth watching here except for Liv Schreiber’s excellent supporting part, and the beautiful score by James Newton Howard (nominated for an Oscar this year). It’s catastrophic for the dramatic impact of a film when its most intense moments are contained in mindless action scenes, especially if it yearns for more. But really, that’s where the film picks up the pace, during its final confrontation. The rest is just lifeless storytelling, carried along by good actors, who don’t even get decent dialogue. A lot of intriguing ideas, like the limits a human being crosses while trying to survive, and the weird relationships that arise from such a departure from civilization are touched upon, briefly but very family-friendly despite the R rating for language and violence. It tries to steer clear of possible controversial issues, because the subject is too sensitive, being about an unseen side of the Holocaust. Spielberg went all the way with “Munich”, but Zwick plays it safe. It never really explores too deep into the dark nature of man, choosing to rely on heavy-handed melodrama for effect. Zwick usually goes for the Oscar-bait and he often brings home a little something. It was a big surprise, for example, when “Blood Diamond” (with a similar mix of serious politics and shallow action) brought home 5 nominations, including two for leading and supporting actor. This one however is not even close to generating the same buzz no matter how the marketing machine pitches it, because Zwick simply can’t give the story the epic strength it deserves.

I don’t want it to seem like I’m a Zwick hater. Not at all. I love most of his films, even “Legends of the Fall”. But “Defiance” simply doesn’t cut it. It lacks that certain quality that would make it a must-see. It could be interesting to see once, for the unique history lesson, but in terms of cinematic achievement it’s a wasted opportunity.

21 (2008)


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75

Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne
Director: Robert Luketic
Screenwriter: Peter Steinfeld, Allan Loeb
Rating: PG-13 for some violence, and sexual content including partial nudity
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21 is a rare breed in the sea of blockbusters. It’s a film with modest means which milks its intriguing idea for all it’s got and succeeds in surpassing its more glamorous competition. Such creations are regarded as underdogs, but when directed with taste and feeling, they can surely pay off.

Inspired from actual events (wich makes it about 80-90% fiction), „21” tells the story of a group of MIT students, the best of the best, who under the guidance of a brilliant statistics proffesor (Kevin Spacey), equiped with fake ID’s and trained in the art of what is known as „counting cards”, strike blow after blow in the monetary hearts of Las Vegas’ finest casinos. The last recruit in the group is Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), who desperately needs 300,000$ to be accepted at Harvard. But the taste of money and pleasure is enough to corrupt anyone, so Ben leaves his old life behind and sinks deeper into the world of gamblers, losing his soul, bit by bit, at the card tables of Sin City. When an old school overseer (old school as in a Scorsese type that applies brutal treatment to cheaters), played by a very large Laurence Fishburne, catches onto the trickesters, Ben in particular, the rules of the game change and the stakes are absolute.

The world of casino cheaters is not really something we’ve never seen before, but the idea of MIT students pulling the tricks and the fact that it’s based on fact, is a welcome change and well handled by the director and screenwriter. The pacing is quick and enthusiasticly flashy, sometimes resembling a music video, especially during the card games, which could get boring without a bit of sound and editing wizardry. The characters are pretty sketchy, but the eager cast more than makes up for it, holding the story on their own terms, adding where it’s lacking. The believability factor also takes a nose dive sometimes, but nothing to worry about, since you’re not required to think about it. It’s all fast and charming, thanks to Russel Carpenters’ cinematography („Titanic”), who relies heavily on digital cameras, obtaining an effect similar to Michael Mann’s recent films (like „Collateral” or „Public Enemies”). The editing is even more coherent that is expected from such MTV generation films, even when it turns scenes into a surreal hallucination of sorts.

It’s fairly obvious this is not a complex or profound experience. It just has some well used aces up its sleeve : the simple but intriguing plot, enough visual energy to keep things moving and enhance the atmosphere creating fluid scenes, good to great acting, all leading to the conclusion that during its aproximativelly 118 minutes it provides quality entertainment and nothing more. It’s not a Best Picture nominee, and it certainly doesn’t aim that high. The director is well aware of what kind of film this is, so he never pushes it, he just lets it be the best it can be, enough to make it worth seeing at least once.

Definitely, Maybe (2008)


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3

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Isla Fisher, Derek Luke, Abigail Breslin, Rachel Weisz, Elizabeth Banks, Kevin Kline
Director: Adam Brooks
Screenwriter: Adam Brook
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„Definitely, Maybe” is a long PG-rated bedtime story told by a divorcing father (Ryan Reynolds) to his very clever and cute girl (all grown up Abigail Breslin of the great „Little Miss Sunshine” fame), a „mistery romance” involving three diferent women, each of which could be the mother of his daughter. We are teased about the changing of the names, so that we know that the Sarah from the settlement papers could be the blonde Emily (Elizabeth Banks), the fire red April (Isla Fisher) or the brunette Summer (Rachel Weisz). Ultimately the conclusion is surprisingly outside this dilemma. And by surprisingly I mean “out of nowhere”.

Although the movie is tediously long, the characters are unacceptably underdeveloped. The main character, a Wisconsin young man with presidential ambitions and a Clinton supporter, arrives in New York for an internship in the democrat campaign office. This is all established in the first 5 minutes and it’s repeated at nauseam, and what makes it even worse is that no further traits are presented. Except maybe a touch of self pity that is never attractive. Despite being two dimensional, he still manages to find beautiful women ready to commit to him. The first one is his college girlfriend Emily. She fairs far worse: she has only one dimension – Wisconsin girl who wears sweaters. And because of the vagueness around her, when an extra (his roommate) gets a line, we know for sure a) what is going to happen, b) that it is important in the storyline and c) that we do not care. Next in line is Summer, a journalist with a bohemian lifestyle, because it is impossible to be a talented artist unless you’ve had a lesbian experience, slept with your age 66 mentor and travelled to Europe. And the only one that gets a little back story is Isla Fisher’s character (therefore we know she’s special): the carefree forever young soul dubbed the “copy machine girl” who has an obsession about finding the book that her father gave to her before he died (“Jane Eyre”), and I tried to give a shit but it was impossible seeing how nobody ever bothered to explain how she lost it in the first place. These beautiful bland people seem to be the only four dwellers of Manhattan as they keep bumping into each other over and over again for years. Luckily, their non-emotional drama is sometimes interrupted by the comments of the preteen girl who seems the only one capable of expressing and attracting any kind of sympathy.

The pacing is unbearable. There are long useless scenes that I think were inserted to compensate for the lack of unity by adding “historic setting” to the thematic chaos, and the writer is trying so hard to evoke the 90’s (“hahahaha, they had brick cell phones in ’92!”, “remember the Lewinsky scandal?”, “Bush is dumb”) that he should receive the Nobel Prize for curing insomnia. Newsflash for the makers of this movie: if you say it is a romantic comedy, please make us laugh or make us feel warm and fuzzy inside (preferably both), don’t bore us to death with your useless “transcending genre” crap. The people who come to see a romantic comedy a)expect to laugh at least once, b) should not be compelled to check their watches every minute and c) DO NOT APPRECIATE EMPTY SHELLS OF REJECTED SUNDANCE MATERIAL and d) can see that you are being boring on purpose and they may start to hate you. And my personal favorite: e) all the above.

Will has two operating patterns: when he is not sure what he wants and he is not in love he proposes, and when he loves a girl he insults her by being condescending or he asks her to stop doing her job because she is in his way. All while pursing his lips and crying himself to sleep because of all the hardship he had to endure, hardship that is not only self-inflicted, but also well deserved. The comatose acting of Reynolds is not helping either, and through his long continuous journey he arjfwqqqqqqdsffffffjaosfsanvasifajfnvn aigssagiaosgosagoasgasgagasgosagiasoigagoasogaosgoiasogaviasgaosgiasogosaogaogoasdccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccc… Sorry, I fell asleep. Where was I? Ah yes, the point of the “love story” is layered etryuilkjhgfhjkllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll… Ok, I need to skip this part.

I was surprised to se the 72% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I began to wonder if I missed something (besides Abigail who is charming and great and without who I would have left the cinema long before the credits) because I kept fixating on how long it lasted and how excruciatingly slow the seconds passed. But then I remembered that I lived through (and enjoyed) the mind numbing “The Hours” (or the “virtually humorless and extremely talky, the movie takes place during one day in each woman’s life, although it moves so slowly it often feels like a week” as this critic described it), as well as every episode of “90210” (have you seen it? it’s so bad it’s good!) and never complained because the first had actual wit and the second never apologized for being a brainless soap opera.