Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sherlock Holmes / *** (PG-13)

Sherlock Holmes: Robert Downey, Jr.
Dr. John Watson: Jude Law
Irene Adler: Rachel McAdams
Lord Blackmore: Mark Strong
Inspector Lestrade: Eddie Marsan
Mary Morstan: Kelly Reilly
Professor Moriarty: ???

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Guy Ritchie. Written by Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg and Lionel Wigram. Based on the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Running time: 128 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some startling images and a scene of suggestive material).

In life there are some professions that require one to know a little about a great many things, or there are jobs that require expertise in a very confined field of knowledge with little awareness of anything else. In movies, the experts are generally experts on a great many things. Sherlock Holmes is known as the world’s greatest detective, but in the new movie “Sherlock Holmes” he is oh so much more than just a mere detective.

In Guy Ritchie’s new film, Sherlock Holmes is a detective, a chemist, a martial artist, a doctor, a master of disguise, a weapons specialist, an expert character profiler, despite his social shortcomings, and a romantic. To say this is not your grandfather’s Sherlock Holmes would not only make me guilty of utilizing an overused aphorism, but it would also be a gross understatement. This is the superhero version of Sherlock Holmes.

Robert Downey, Jr. uses the same unbalanced charm that made his Tony Stark in “Iron Man” such a hit to make this new take on Holmes just as enjoyable. Downey is witty, humorous, and makes you want to hang out with him and learn something, even though it does appear he might have a slight odor to him. The only thing saving Holmes from a boorish downfall is his relationship with Dr. John Watson, the ballast to Holmes’s wavering ship of human scrutiny and unchecked etiquette. As Watson, Jude Law (“Sleuth”) brings stability to the entire film with his good looks and a grounding reason.

As the film opens, Holmes and Watson are on their “final case” together. Watson is engaged to be married to Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly, “Me and Orson Welles”), who is glad to remove her man from the negative influence of Holmes. Holmes and Watson have tracked down Lord Blackmore after a string of ritual occult murders, only to see him reappear after he is put to death for the killings. While Blackmore uses fear to keep the local constabulary off its game, Holmes and Watson try to overlook the notion of the paranormal in cracking the Blackmore case. All the while Irene Adler, a former foe or lover of Holmes who is working for a mysterious benefactor, dogs them.

Mark Strong (“Body of Lies”), while certainly a passable heavy, makes little of the role of Blackmore. Of course, it is not Blackmore himself, but his scheme and his methods that are of interest. Rachel McAdams makes a stronger—no pun intended—impression as the one person who seems capable of outsmarting Holmes. With her two roles this year—here and in the overlooked political thriller “State of Play”—McAdams continues to prove herself as an A-list actress, able to pick smart roles in strong movies.

The screenwriters do a good job of updating the Holmes mythology for a modern audience. Some might complain that the language and action of the film are a little too modern for its period setting, but the script keeps Holmes’s analytical mind at the forefront of all its action with a plot that holds onto Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original ideals of facing paranormal developments from a scientific point of view. Even the fistfights are laid out in Holmes’s mind before they happen. Despite the fact that Holmes continually is placed against adversaries that are physically superior to him, the technique used to show the audience how he will defeat his opponents before the action actually occurs helps to make it more plausible that he could defeat them.

Ritchie’s kinetic direction works well with the modern retrofit. Ritchie has mostly tinkered in modern low level crime thrillers like “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “RocknRolla”. He hasn’t fared well with critics, but has a flare for presenting the grimy underworld of the British crime scene. That gift serves him well with this period crime material. Holmes’s London is not the clean, sharp skyscape of today with the likes of the Gherkin building, but a London when the streets were overcrowded, dirty with the grind of newborn industrialism, and filled with the stench of Thames’s waterfront slaughterhouses. It isn’t far removed from the cockney antiestablishment of Ritchie’s modern crime studies.

“Sherlock Holmes” is not as groundbreaking as some of this year’s more successful blockbuster fare, but it’s more engaging than others. The cast does a wonderful job making the movie a lot of fun, while the filmmakers have put a great deal into its atmosphere. You’ll have fun watching Holmes’s latest adventure, and that’s really what’s important with a movie like this one. I’m already anxious to see another Holmes case, provided it’s done with the wit and style of this one.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Avatar/ **** (PG-13)

Jake Sully: Sam Worthington
Neytiri: Zoë Saldana
Dr. Grace Augustine: Sigourney Weaver
Colonel Miles Quartich: Stephen Lang
Trudy Chacon: Michelle Rodriguez
Parker Selfridge: Giovanni Ribisi
Norm Spellman: Joel David Moore
Moat: CCH Pounder
Eytukan: Wes Studi
Tsu’tey: Laz Alonso

20th Century Fox presents a film written and directed by James Cameron. Running time: 162 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking).

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.”
-Pulp Fiction (1994)

In the film “Pulp Fiction”, the character of Jules Winnfield sites Ezekiel 25:17 as the source of his speech that begins with the line above. While much of his speech can be found in Ezekiel 25, there is nothing resembling these words there. I’m not sure where writer Quentin Tarantino pulled the opening line of this speech, but James Cameron’s latest film “Avatar” seems to be cut from the same cloth as that hitman’s attempt at rectitude.

In this case the selfish and evil are the human race and the righteous are the Na’vi, an indigenous alien race of a planet called Pandora. An Earth corporation has targeted Pandora for mining, at all costs, of a precious metal. In a lame attempt to make things look better the corporation has hired a group of scientists to “educate” the Na’vi so they can negotiate a relocation process for the native sentient beings of the planet.

At the start of the film we learn one of the scientists has died in an accident, so the corporation has recruited his crippled twin brother, Jake, to replace him in their specialized Avatar program. The scientific team, lead by Dr. Grace Augustine, is not happy to have a “grunt” on their team as their program involves a great knowledge of the Na’vi culture. The Avatars are organic bodies of the ten foot blue Na’vi race, which the scientists can operate through individual remote consciousness access ports. This allows the scientists to better relate to the Na’vi, who are naturally fearful of the humans, in a one on one direct contact basis.

The scientists are soon surprised by Jake’s more instinctive nature, however, when a leader in the Na’vi community, Neytiri, decides there is something about Jake’s nature that allows him to fit in well with the Na’vi’s warrior culture. Meanwhile, it seems the scientists fears aren’t totally unfounded as the corporation’s face on Pandora, Parker Selfridge, and the military leader on Pandora, Colonel Miles Quartich, recruit the wheel chair-bound Marine as a spy with the promise to return the use of his legs. Which side will Jake fall on once he is ensconced in the Navi culture, the benevolence of science and understanding, or the aggressive corporate and military mindset he has been trained for?

So that’s the plot of “Avatar”, most likely the least of what any of you have heard about this highly anticipated film. While the plot it is the least impressive aspect of the movie, it is well handled here by the filmmakers. In fact, it’s one of the strongest stories James Cameron has produced throughout a career that has often seen the humane elements of his science fiction plots handled in cardboard fashion. The film dives deep into the dichotomy of our human nature—our desire to both understand the worlds we inhabit and our insatiable need to destroy in the name of progress.

Despite the scientists’ impression of Jake as stupid and uneducated, the Na’vi correctly see him as “an empty vessel” with room for filling and with a childlike ability to see their world with unbiased eyes. This also works for Jake’s military mindset of following orders without question. Sam Worthington—who also did a good job in “Terminator Salvation” of not signaling his character’s true nature—does a good job balancing his two missions, scientific and military, in a way that the audience can understand his motivations for wanting to complete both of them.

The supporting cast also does a commendable job of reaching beyond their character archetypes. Sigourney Weaver’s work here as the hardened yet empathetic Dr. Grace is reminiscent of her Academy Award nominated work as Dian Fossey in “Gorillas in the Mist”. Giovanni Ribisi (“Public Enemies”) allows the audience to believe that his company man, Selfridge, might actually consider the wrongs he is committing, if only in the back of his mind. Although Col. Quartich is a typical military representation, devoid of humanity, Stephen Lang proves with his performance here and this year’s other movies, “Public Enemies” and “The Men Who Stare at Goats”, that he is the character actor of the year. And, Zoë Saldana (“Star Trek”) emotes beauty and compassion even though she never appears on screen in any form other than the CGI created ten foot tall blue Na’vi.

None of this is what makes this film so amazing. It is a good sci-fi story and might make pretty good popcorn entertainment with typical studio attention, but this one has the attention of the ultra-technically oriented Cameron at the helm. His last film, “Titanic”, was the most expensive movie ever made more than ten years ago and became the biggest grossing movie ever, a title that has not been taken from it in the intervening decade. Cameron was responsible for developing the CGI technology that has become a staple of Hollywood blockbusters for his far less financially successful undersea sci-fi flick “The Abyss”. He continues to stretch the bounds of the film going experience with this movie.

The CGI work in “Avatar” is more stunning as anything you’ll see in “Transformers” or “The Twilight Saga”,. The bright alien world of Pandora is filled with the colors and translucence of plants and creatures great and small and often frightening. The human technology of this story’s future is impressive in its magnitude. Cameron never hides his lines in darkness or editing. The trickeries used by most directors to conceal the illusion of their special effects work are a coward’s game for this director. Most of the film is effects work and most of it takes place in full sunlight without benefit of shadowy atmosphere or quick cut editing.

I’ve seen clips on television, and although those scenes do look good, it might make one wonder just why the special effects are being praised as so revolutionary. While it is important that this film works outside of the 3D format that has been pushed so heavily in its anticipation, the 3D format is really the only way to truly experience the power of this picture. Cameron has proven with this picture that not only is 3D a viable format for serious live action filmmakers, but it will be a format which many, many more filmmakers will be choosing to exhibit their work in the future.

For all the beauty that can be found on Pandora in two dimensions, its beauty is multiplied tenfold when seen in three dimensions. Cameron, through years of working with the 3D format in undersea documentaries, is already a master of utilizing 3D for ultimate effect. The film opens in a zero gravity environment, and the somewhat disorienting 3D effect adds to the viability of this environment for the audience. But, the audience can adjust to this 3D experience at the very same rate the film’s hero must adjust to his new environment. We see the power of the format as Jake witnesses the massive industrial equipment of the human base and the radical beauty of Pandora. By the time we reach the end of the movie, the 3D format has become second nature as much to the audience as Jake’s avatar Na’vi body has become to him.

When Tarantino released “Pulp Fiction” in 1994, it was an obvious sea change shift in filmmaking style. With the release of “Avatar”, we are witnessing yet another monumental shift in the type of entertainment we seek out to enjoy. In many ways, Cameron’s work here is even more important than Tarantino’s. “Avatar” is not merely a stylistic shift, but a visual one—one that not only affects the way we interpret movies, but one that physically changes the way we watch them. I can see a day when almost all movies are presented in three dimensions, a closer step to that virtual reality we all seem to seek from our entertainment. With the message that Cameron infuses into his story here, his work could be interpreted as righteous indeed.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Invictus / **** (PG-13)

Nelson Mandela: Morgan Freeman
Francois Pienaar: Matt Damon
Jason Tshabalala: Tony Kgoroge
Linga Moonsamy: Patrick Mofokeng
Hendrick Booyens: Matt Stern
Etienne Feyder: Julian Lewis Jones
Brenda Mazibuko: Adjoa Andoh

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Anthony Peckham. Based on the Book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation”. Running time: 134 min. Rated PG-13 (for brief strong language).

Back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Hollywood’s golden boy directors were Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. They were the directors to watch, the future of Hollywood. And while they were living up to their reputations by diving into the madness of Vietnam, breaking down the barriers of an American sports icon, and invading the planet with benevolent aliens; Clint Eastwood was still taming the west as an unnamed outlaw and hanging out with a monkey who liked to make right turns. Who would’ve thought that Eastwood would one day be making the most important films of all four of them?

“Invitcus” is just about a perfectly timed film. When Eastwood was in the planning stages of this movie, the United States was approaching its greatest economic downfall since the great depression and had yet to see its first black man elected President. A milestone has been passed in our country, and we’ve entered into a journey that promises to be both harrowing and rewarding. “Invictus” acts as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go by looking at racial prejudice in another country and time that had much farther to go and made an even more monumental leap.

His movie begins with the 1990 release of Nelson Mandela from his 27 years of incarceration under the oppressive policy of apartheid in South Africa. Like many an Eastwood endeavor, the director doesn’t waste time with incidentals. His movie is not about apartheid, so he shows us some racially biased reactions to Mandela’s release and then quickly moves the movie forward to the first fully democratic election of South Africa in 1994, in which the overwhelming first-time participation of black voters lead to Mandela’s five-year term as president of the nation that had once imprisoned him as a terrorist.

The movie is not interested in Mandela’s policies so much as his desire to unite his country and show the world what racial harmony can look like. Very little time is spent on state business or with Mandela’s practices of governing. Instead Eastwood focuses on Mandela’s obsession with its national rugby team, the Springboks, and the people both black and white surrounding the team and his immediate cabinet.

The team is a point of pride for white Africans, despite the fact that they have not performed well in the big matches. It’s also a focal point of derision for the black people of South Africa. Mandela observes during a game against long time rivals England that all the black fans are rooting for the opposing team. Going against the popular beliefs of his people, Mandela pleads with the black contingent now in power to keep the Springboks in order to prevent alienating his white countrymen. Then he boldly invites the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar, to tea and challenges him to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which is to be hosted by South Africa.

Some critics have misinterpreted Eastwood’s film as “a typical sports flick”. In structure it’s very much a sports film. The Springboks are the underdogs who must reach into the reserves of their souls to pull out a string of unlikely victories and raise themselves to the highest pinnacle of their sport. It might sound like “The Bad News Bears”, but Eastwood acts much like Mandela in his methodology of using a popular medium to get his message across. While “Invictus” looks and sounds like a sports movie, it’s actually a movie about tolerance and how unity can be achieved with the right visionaries in place to see success where others can’t.

A key to Eastwood’s insight can be found in the supporting players and subplots. While the movie is firmly focused on Mandela’s seemingly misguided interest in how the Springboks perform on the world stage when his country’s internal affairs are a muddy mess of racism and economic failings, it’s in the subplots where Eastwood’s message can be found. Besides Pienaar’s leadership role, most of the movie’s subplots focus on Mandela’s multi-racial cabinet and security force and their struggles to understand his policy of equality over black rule. Their story is the heart of the movie. Their hurdles are the highest.

Morgan Freeman (“The Dark Knight”) and Matt Damon (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) are impeccable in their roles as Mandela and Pienaar respectively. Although their efforts are award worthy, due respect must also be paid to the supporting cast. With past films Eastwood has been criticized for not filling the supporting roles with seasoned actors. Such is not the case this time around. The supporting cast is just as strong as the leading players, especially the work of Tony Kgoroge (“Hotel Rwanda”) as Mandela’s chief of security who reluctantly must employ the experienced white officers of the state secret service.

I find it interesting that change seems forced into developing during times of great duress on a national scale. South Africa, despite the anti-apartheid changes embraced by its government, couldn’t have been in a more volatile state in the early ‘90s. A great many people were faced with life changes unthinkable just a few years earlier, and many on both sides didn’t know how to function under these new social parameters. Our own country, while not surfacing from as severe racial oppression as apartheid, is also in the middle of the most divisive time period of my lifetime. The political climate of our country is deplorable, with each side slinging their mud through political pundits that only profit from the divisive nature of their comments and actions. Intolerance seems to be on the rise, and yet we still finally breached our political race barrier by electing the first black president in our nation’s history. No matter which side you fall on, it’s important to recognize the monumental change that has resulted from our tumultuous times. Eastwood reflects on another country’s great leap in this film. Hopefully, our country will look back as fondly on what we have done in this decade for our country’s future.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox / ***½ (PG)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Mr. Fox: George Clooney
Mrs. Fox: Meryl Streep
Ash: Jason Schwartzman
Badger: Bill Murray
Kylie: Wally Wolodarsky
Kristopherson: Eric Anderson
Franklin Bean: Michael Gambon
Rat: Willem Dafoe
Coach Skip: Owen Wilson
Petey: Jarvis Cocker

Fox Searchlight presents a film directed by Wes Anderson. Written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach. Based on the book by Roald Dahl. Running time: 87 min. Rated PG (for action, smoking, and slang humor).

Almost every year in the Best Animated Short category of the Academy Awards there is a stop-motion entry, and I always want to see it. There is something about stop-motion animation that is mysterious. It must have something to do with the fact that some of the filmmaking process is left up there on the screen, unhidden from the audience’s scrutiny. Sometimes there are fingerprints of the puppeteers visible in the clay. With hairy characters, the fur is never quite the same from shot to shot. Whatever it is, there is a fascination created by the format.

Director Wes Anderson’s fascination with the format was first observed in his live action film “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” in some stop-motion animation used for some undersea shots and one live action shot that showed Zissou’s boat’s interior in cross-section. Cross-section shots are used extensively in his new stop-motion animated film. Even more prevalent than his stop-motion fascination in this new adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s book “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, however, is Anderson’s continuing fascination with the eccentric behaviors of families.

Mr. Fox (voiced by the ubiquitous George Clooney, “The Men Who Stare at Goats”) is a reformed chicken thief, who now raises his two-year-old son—twelve in fox years—Ash (the nearly as ubiquitous Jason Schwartzman, “Funny People”) with his former partner in crime, now wife, Mrs. Fox (the possibly more ubiquitous Meryl Streep, “Julie & Julia”). Mr. Fox is restless as a newspaper columnist convinced that no one in the woods reads his articles. He decides to move his family out of their foxhole and into a tree across from three mega farmers, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean.

His lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray, “Broken Flowers”), is very much against this move, as would his wife be if she knew it was all part of Fox’s plan to return to his nefarious ways. Ash very much wants to go into the “family business”, but it is his cousin Kristopherson (Eric Anderson) who has all the “natural athletic abilities”, a grave point of contention for young Ash.

There will be much complaining about the film as a children’s movie, because it focuses so much on conversation and character, not so much on action. Yet the stop-motion animation keeps the action constant with how the characters look at each other, smile, groom themselves and have ever shifting details that only stop-motion animation provides. Anderson is in full swing here with his oddball characterizations and quirky behavior. The screenplay, co-written by Anderson with “Life Aquatic” collaborator Noah Baumbaugh, plunges the audience into the dysfunction of family while simultaneously showing the wonderful support structure a family can provide.

There is very little resemblance in feeling between this and the work of Roald Dahl, and yet the plot points provided by Dahl’s book fit in well with the zaniness of Anderson’s characters. Eventually Fox comes under the scrutiny of the farmers. Led by the alcohol driven madness of Mr. Bean (Michael Gambon, the “Harry Potter” series), the farmers make it their mission in life to hunt down Fox and his family at all cost.

To say “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a strange movie would be an understatement, but it’s also a fascinating movie. Both the animation format and the unique characters make this movie a joy to watch. Clooney once again finds himself a role that allows him deplorable character flaws yet a charming nature with which to win the favor of both his fellow players and the audience. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” may not be what you’d expect from a children’s book adaptation, but it will leave a smile on your face—a grin in fact, much like you’d find on the fox who finds himself in the hen house.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats / *** (R)

Lyn Cassady: George Clooney
Bob Wilton: Ewan McGregor
Bill Django: Jeff Bridges
Larry Hooper: Kevin Spacey
Brigadier General Dean Hopgood: Stephen Lang
Todd Nixon: Robert Patrick

Overture Films presents a film directed by Grant Heslov. Written by Peter Straughan. Based on the book by Jon Ronson. Running time: 94 min. Rated R (for language, some drug content, and brief nudity).

The key to good satire lies in the storyteller’s ability to believe in the subject of which they are also ridiculing. “The Men Who Stare at Goats” tells a story that might seem difficult to believe in, but on a title card at the beginning of the film it claims, “More of this story is true than you would believe.” I don’t know how much of this story is true. The fact of it doesn’t really matter. What does is that, for all its absurdity, I do believe our government is capable of the practices depicted in this movie.

A reporter, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor, “Angels & Demons”), stumbles upon the story of a secret U.S. Army unit known as the New Earth Army, which employs paranormal powers on their missions. This discovery comes at a turning point in Wilton’s life. When he stumbles upon the New Earth’s star soldier, Lyn Cassady, on assignment in Iraq, he goes against all his better sense and decides to pursue the story.

Cassady, played by George Clooney (“Burn After Reading”), appears to be quite off his rocker; but he spins a tale of New Earth’s non-lethal philosophy in such a way you want to believe him. New Earth’s ringleader, as played by Jeff Bridges (“The Big Lebowski”), has much to do with the group’s appeal. The ultimate aging hippie actor brings all the hippie love of his career to the role of Bill Django and has a good deal of fun satirizing his own image in this military setting. I don’t think it’s any mistake that McGregor, Obi-wan Kenobi himself, was cast as the reporter who discovers these soldiers who refer to themselves as “Jedi warriors.”

Wilton follows Cassady out into the desert of Iraq on a “mission” that was assigned to him in a “vision.” Cassady shows Wilton many of the methods of New Earth, which often seem like feats that ghost hunters would find no trouble debunking. As the two stumble around the hostile desert, Cassady also feeds Wilton the turbulent history of the New Earth Army, a story that came to an abrupt end when one of its bad apples developed a program where the soldiers were trained to use their psychic abilities to kill a goat just by staring at it.

There really isn’t much to the story of “The Men Who Stare at Goats.” It lacks much of the cleverness and depth of past collaborations between Clooney and his producing and writing partner, Grant Heslov (“Good Night, and Good Luck”), who takes the directing reigns this time around. However, the story has its smirking charm, which is sold by the film’s solid casting. Clooney continues his streak of selling crazy despite his striking looks. McGregor’s boyish innocence is used effectively. Kevin Spacey (“Recount”) is brought in as bad apple Larry Hooper for an instant recognition of his smarminess. And kudos must to be given to Stephen Lang (“Public Enemies”) for his scene-stealing performance as the impressionable Brigadier General Dead Hopgood.

“The Men Who Stare at Goats” feels distinctly like Coen Brothers lite. It falls in to that oddball cinema of the absurd, which most Coen Brothers comedies find themselves. Clooney has certainly played his fair share of oddballs in Coen comedies. He brings their flair to this project, although this one feels much more mainstream friendly than most Coen fare. It lacks the bloodshed that even their more slapstick work tends to contain.

While I don’t think “The Men Who Stare at Goats” will be winning any awards, there is a good sense that everyone involved is just having a good time. That energy finds its way off the screen and into the audience. There are no big guffaws to be had here; it’s more of a thinking man’s comedy. There is a good deal of fun on screen, and that’s good enough for me. Just don’t ask the goats what they think of it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

2012 / *** (PG-13)

Jackson Curtis: John Cusack
Adrian Helmsley: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Kate Curtis: Amanda Peet
Carl Anhauser: Oliver Platt
Laura Wilson: Thandie Newton
Gordon Silberman: Tom McCarthy
Noah Curtis: Liam James
Lilly Curtis: Morgan Lily
President Wilson: Danny Glover
Charlie Frost: Woody Harrelson

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Roland Emmerich. Written by Emmerich & Harold Kloser. Running time: 158 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense disaster sequences and some language).

I’ve been fairly forward in reviews about how disappointing Roland Emmerich’s films have been in the past. Up until now, the only film of his I’ve liked was 2000’s “The Patriot”. While that one embraced a figure—however inaccurately—in American history, all his other films have been special effects extravaganzas, with several attempting to reproduce the atmosphere of the great Irwin Allen disaster flicks that were so popular throughout the 70s. With his new movie “2012”, it seems he may have actually studied some of the better disaster movies.

The story deals with the end of the world, as we know it. What it gets right is not focusing on preachy soapboxes about humanity’s insignificance or man’s responsibility to his environment, as Emmerich’s less successful “The Day After Tomorrow” did. Nor does it delve too much into the Biblical implications of an apocalypse, although it doesn’t entirely ignore them either. Certainly a gathering of many of the Earth’s animal species by our collective governing bodies and the construction of vessels referred to as “arks” leans toward the Biblical, if not exactly the Apocalypse.

While “2012” is heavy on special effects—and there are some seriously overblown effects sequences here—the journeys the characters must take through these events are firmly the focus of the movie. The shear amount of effects on display here cannot be denied, but the characters don’t merely serve to get from one effects sequence to the next, as they did in Emmerich’s last film “10,000 B.C.”. Here the characters have lives and minds that are not content to simply fall into the pattern of racing from one danger to the next. They stubbornly go from one effect to the next. Often it’s their stubbornness that lands them in danger and gets them out.

Like many a great disaster flick the cast of this movie is epic and includes A-list actors at every level of the plot, including Danny Glover (“Lethal Weapon” series) as the President of the United States, Thandie Newton (“Crash”) as the first daughter, George Segal (the original “Fun With Dick and Jane”) as a doomed jazz musician on a cruise liner, Oliver Platt (“Frost/Nixon”) as a White House staffer concerned more with preserving the government institution than the fundamentals of humanity, and Woody Harrelson (“Zombieland”) as a spaced out conspiracy nut who somehow has everything right.

Also along the lines of a classic disaster pic, the plot focuses primarily on two main characters, i.e. the Paul Newman and Steve McQueen characters in “The Towering Inferno”. One is an expert in the disaster situation at hand, the other is simply an everyman caught up in the event trying to survive against the odds. The enigmatic Chiwetel Ejiofor (“American Gangster”) plays the scientist who discovers that geological events have transpired that will bring about drastic seismic shifts in the Earth’s crust by the end of the year 2012, essentially bringing about the end of the world. John Cusack (“1408”) handles the everyman duties as a failed writer and husband who must survive the most extreme of these calamitous events with his estranged family in tow.

When I first saw the ads for this movie I was a bit concerned about how totally implausible the destruction of the world looked. It is totally implausible, and perhaps Emmerich goes a little too far overboard with his first major disaster sequence, where California essentially falls into the Pacific. A subtler, slower developing disaster might have served his characters’ flight a little better. I can still recall those first flames building quietly while the guests partied in “The Towering Inferno”. But despite a few repetitive “let’s fly this plane out of here before the land drops out from under us” sequences, Emmerich eventually finds his stride and does a good job developing new catastrophes for the characters to survive before all is said and done.

“2012” is a movie that must be taken with a suspension of disbelief. If you can do that, this movie’s extremely suspenseful and a hell of a lot of fun. For all the efforts Emmerich has made throughout his film career to resurrect the classic Hollywood disaster flick, it seems a bit of irony that he finally made a good one with what he claims will be his final disaster flick. He’s spent many years trying to establish himself as the modern Irwin Allen. This time he actually lives up to the legacy of that Hollywood giant.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs / ***½ (PG)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Flint Lockwood: Bill Hader
Sam Sparks: Anna Faris
Tim Lockwood: James Caan
‘Baby’ Brent: Andy Samberg
Mayor Shelbourne: Bruce Campbell
Earl Devereaux: Mr. T
Cal Devereaux: Bobb’e J. Thompson
Manny: Benjamin Bratt
Steve: Neil Patrick Harris

Columbia Pictures presents a film written and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Based on the book written by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett. Running time: 90 min. Rated PG (for brief mild language).

It’s hard to get me laughing. I chuckle. I don’t guffaw. I’ve had moments of uncontrollable laughter. I remember an incident with my brother and a grouper dish in a fancy restaurant that threatened to get us kicked out, but for the most part I’m a single “Ha!” man.

That being said, “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” is an absolute laugh riot. I was laughing during almost every single moment of this movie. The laughs are pretty basic, as any food-based comedy would be. Although, often the filmmakers show a great knack for subtle and background humor that isn’t always in your face. It’s sweet and non-offensive. It doesn’t imbue its story with great depth or even jokes just for the grownups. But the basic kid-friendly comedy it embraces it sharply done and non-stop.

The story takes place on the small island town of Swallow Falls, located under the ‘L’ in the Atlantic Ocean (ho-ha). The citizens of Swallow Falls are forced to live off their own overabundant sardine supply when it is realized by the rest of the world that sardines are gross. Little Flint Lockwood, however, is an inventor who will eventually invent Swallow Falls’ saving grace, a machine that turns the weather into food. So instead of a snow shower, Swallow Falls will get an ice cream shower that even forms in scoops on the rooftops. The town becomes famous for its food weather and changes its name to Chewsandswallows (ha-ho).

The whole thing is pretty simple. There’s no new ground broken here. Flint (voiced by SNL’s Bill Hader, “Tropic Thunder”) is the scientist oblivious to the world around him. He has a disapproving father (James Caan, “Elf”), whose admiration is a desperate commodity for Flint. Sam Sparks (Anna Faris, “Scary Movie” series), the intern promoted to weather girl to cover the island’s unique precipitation, is secretly as much a nerd as Flint, and therefore is a potential love interest. The Mayor (Bruce Campbell, “The Ant Bully”) pushes Flint’s invention too far out of greed and gluttony. So you’ve got the tension with Dad, the romantic interest, and the bad guy. Is it a surprise to learn that everything eventually goes horribly wrong? No real stretch there, but the details of the movie raise it to a higher level than your average family flick.

Take Tim Lockwood’s eyebrow, for instance. Flint’s father is a big man, very imposing yet very soft spoken. He has a monobrow that is so large it covers his eyes completely. You can do this in animation. In real life this man would barely be able to function. His eyebrow keeps him composed, but when truly angered or surprised that eyebrow raises up, exposing the man’s vulnerable eyes beneath. The effect of this event is considerably humorous.

Or take Flint’s pet monkey, Steve (Neil Patrick Harris, “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”). Steve is Flint’s Igor, although he seems less useful. Whenever Flint is cooking up a new food to fall from the sky, Steve suggests Gummy Bears. Steve’s insistence on Gummy Bears becomes second nature—even to the audience—but eventually the story brings Steve his Gummy Bears in a “big” way. The results have the audience finding a new respect for the lame-brained companion.

Unfortunately, I never had the pleasure of reading the original children’s book by Judi and Ron Barrett to my two boys; but as I understand it, the movie diverges greatly from the story in the children’s book. Screenwriters and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (the producing team behind CBS’s “How I Met Your Mother”) have shaped the premise of the island with food for weather into more of an adventure than what was presented in the Barretts’ book. This helps the movie work on a universal level that all audiences can tune into.

“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” certainly never reaches the levels of greatness that the films of Pixar Studios do, films like “Up” and “WALL•E”. But there is no denying the fact that I haven’t laughed this much in a movie theater yet this year. There are no profound truths to be found in a movie about food falling from the sky, but it will stick to your ribs.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Horrorfest 09 Week 3: Horror Up, Horror Down

My strange mix of horror continues into week three with a black & white classic, a modern mocumentary, a Japanese anime, its misguided live action remake, and the best horror movie to be released in recent memory.

I hadn’t heard of “The Innocents” when Netflix suggested that I might like it just weeks before Horrorfest began. Based on the Henry James novel “The Turn of the Screw” and boasting a screenplay credit for Truman Capote, I hadn’t expected the devious and truly frightening movie I was in store for as I began to stream it onto my laptop late one evening.

There is nothing about this period piece ghost story that didn’t surprise me, from the fact that I’d never heard of it, to the fact that it came from a Henry James novel, to the fact that a British class setting could be so moody and creepy, to the fact that an actress like Deborah Kerr would be allowed to carry such a heavy piece almost singlehandedly in 1960.

The story follows a nanny on her first job, replacing another nanny that had died suddenly. The two children whose care she is charged with are both sweet and intelligent, seemingly the perfect little specimens. Soon the nanny begins to suspect ghosts of the former nanny and a deceased driver the dead woman had an affair with while in service together are haunting the children. It begins to seem as if the children may have been indirectly, if not directly, responsible for their deaths. But the movie doesn’t give into cheap excuses for the children’s strange behavior. Instead of being “evil” these children may have very deep psychological reasons for their behavior. Or maybe they are evil. Or maybe the “ghosts” are evil. Or maybe it is all in the nanny’s head. The film is brilliant in leaving all these possibilities open to the viewer’s interpretation.

“American Zombie” is not a horror movie, but rather another zombie spoof that presents its subject in mock documentary form. It follows several different zombies living in Southern California. It shows their lives as if zombies are the latest in our country’s string of minority figures. They’re used as cheap labor and discriminated against by the population, who for the most part fears them as flesh eaters.

The filmmakers use a diverse group of zombies to detail their existence. One is a slacker/loser who seems perfectly happy to be a zombie, a happy-go-lucky dead guy. Another is a zombie activist, fighting for zombie rights and equality. A third is an office worker ashamed of her deadness. Like many documentaries with a specific goal this one culminates in a zombie festival in which no living humans, save for the film crew, are allowed. Are there secrets the zombie community doesn’t want the living population at large to know about?

This is the question the film crew, headed by real life student academy award winner documentary filmmaker Grace Lee and the slightly more fictional Andrew Amondson (real person, not a documentary director), aims to answer. The film has fun with the divergent methods the two directors wish to employ to obtain those answers. Lee—the experienced documentarian—wishes to gain trust, while Amondson seems to think he’s the next great journalist, asking the hard questions directly. It’s not really scary, but its fun.

For horror fanatics the remake is just part of the landscape. More often than not a remake will be inferior to the original. This is often the case because the themes of the times in which the original was made are no longer relevant, and the filmmakers haven’t made an effort to redirect the themes of the story to fit current events. Of course, sometimes it’s just a mater of good filmmaking versus poor.

With “Blood: The Last Vampire” it is a little of the latter and a lot a matter of a major format change. The original “Blood” was animated in the style that has become known as anime. And it is all anime, with a focus on action and an affinity toward the strange.

The story follows a girl wielding a samurai sword, killing people on the subway and in a school on a U.S. military base. She’s not just slicing and dicing anybody, though; she’s killing “vampires” disguised as normal people. She works for the American government and apparently is half vampire herself. The film is visually stunning and quite creepy in the way it depicts its “vampires” working through the student population.

The live action remake tries very hard to retain the spirit of the anime, but that doesn’t translate so well. The stylized acting of the G-men comes off clumsily and they run out of remake story at about the halfway point (the original film is only 45 minutes). The background story on the girl they come up with to fill in the second half of the film is much weaker than the vampire-hunting portion that takes place on the military base.

Another problem with the live action is that the focus is less on horror and more on Hong Kong-style wire acrobatic fighting. The mixture of genres here detracts from the story, which in itself detracts from the visuals. The film is really quite a mess and a further example of how the vampire mythology is falling further away from its psychological horror ancestry and leaning more toward pure fantasy.

To wash the taste of that failure from my mind I choose to force my wife to watch the best horror movie of the year and one of the best films overall of 2009, Sam Raimi’s over-the-top horror extravaganza “Drag Me To Hell”. Angie had trepidations going into the screening. She’s not a big horror lover. When the film was over, however, she was facebooking every friend she had to recommend it for a good Halloween scare.

Raimi’s rollicking “Drag Me To Hell” is most certainly one of the most fun times you’ll have watching a movie this year. One reason is that he has so much fun with his subject matter. He knows when the horror he has developed is just plain silly and he comes at his audience with tongue firmly in cheek in those moments. He also knows how to generate genuine scares through atmosphere, lighting and—mostly prominently—sound. This makes “Drag Me To Hell” also the most frightening time you’ll have watching a movie this year. Not too light, not too heavy. This is filmmaking at its sharpest. Read my full-length review here.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Horrorfest 09 Week 2: Where the Oddities Are

The second week of Horrorfest ’09 continued one of my most eclectic mixes of horror features yet. I had the opportunity to see two new releases in theaters and took in another four films in from the comfort of my own home, usually in the dark with headphones on to shield the rest of my family from the screams of terror coming out of the Blu-Ray player.

I kicked off the week with my first theatrical visit of the month. I was a week behind the curve, but “Zombieland” was a surprise hit with audiences. I caught the second wave of what was an enjoyable ride, if not particularly scary. Read my official full-length review here.

“Zombieland” is the offspring of a new subgenre of horror that has popped up in recent years—the horror comedy. The most influential of these recent horror comedy entries is probably the British film “Shaun of the Dead”. In fact, the director of “Zombieland” sited “Shaun of the Dead” as the major influence over his film. Certainly “Zombieland is a very American take on the material tackled by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg in that cult hit, which was featured in Horrorfest 2005. As is typical of Americans, there is no attempt to understand zombies in “Zombieland”. They are merely set decoration for the story about the humans and the things they want and their pining for how great life used to be. It’s really quite a statement on our society.

For some reason zombies seem to be the creature of choice for this new horror comedy movement. Most likely this is because the slow, mindless, lumbering, flesh eaters really call into question just why they should be scary by their very definition. They’re easy to kill. They’re predictable. And they’re stupid. They’re everything a high school clown could hope for in a laugh muse.

Here at Horrorfest we’ve looked at such great zombie-coms as “Fido”, about a retro American society that uses zombies as servants; “Black Sheep”, a genius New Zealand parody of the genre where sheep are the zombies terrorizing the farmlands; “Zombie Honeymoon”, a hilarious independent production that originally aired on Showtime about a groom who is infected as a zombie on his honeymoon and must resist eating his new bride; the middle section of the movie “The Signal” showed us how a zombie-type of victim might try to understand what has happened to him; the very dark British flick “Severance” showed us the ultimate British office worker’s nightmare (zombies need not apply). Next week we’ll watch another, the mockumentary that does what “Zombieland” didn’t, really look into the lives of zombies in “American Zombie”.

“P2” is a small but effective film. Flying in under the radar upon its release in the late fall of 2007, this two person thriller works by keeping everything very simple. Basically, a security guard, who has developed a surveillance crush, stalks a workaholic executive on Christmas Eve. The roles are effectively played by Rachel Nichols as the victim and a typically creepy Wes Bently as her severely warped stalker. The entire production takes place within a New York City parking garage and is ingenious in its plotting to keep the victim trapped there.

The movie comes from a script by French filmmaker Alexandre Aja, who is responsible for the wickedly clever “High Tension”, and the not so clever Hollywood remakes of “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Mirrors”. His previous films have thrived (and died) on their overblown direction. Perhaps this one succeeds through the more straightforward treatment by first time director Franck Kahlfoun. Whatever the difference, this thriller strikes the right notes and keeps the audience in tension throughout. What it lacks in complexity, it makes up for in intensity.

I’ve already written in some detail about my concerns over the cinema of brutality that is embraced by movies like “The Strangers”. Those thoughts can be read in my previous Horrorfest report here. What I didn’t mention in those passages was how good it is to see a modern horror movie embracing patience in its direction and plot development. Too often today horror films are edited like some sort of MTV video, like the director is trying to break some sort of edits per minute record. As if more cuts equals more thrills. But in horror it should be just the opposite, since so much good horror is psychological.

“The Strangers” is a perfect example of patience in horror filmmaking. The movie takes its time introducing the audience to its two victims, a couple coming home late at night from a wedding. Their evening did not end well, and both are uncomfortable with each other. This brings tension into the story before any of the horror elements are even introduced. Smart filmmaking.

Then when their tormentors in masks arrive to torture them first psychologically, then physically. The sound work in this movie is phenomenal. I think the scariest moments come before any of the assailants are seen. Although their entrance onto the stage is also a work of horror art, as one lone figure appears silently in the background of a shot. If not for the subtle lighting used to highlight the figure, the audience—like the victim—might just glance by the figure as if nothing were there. It’s one of the creepiest visual you’ll ever see in a film. “The Strangers” may cross some lines of voyeuristic taste, but it does so with artful and frightening filmmaking.

As a child I was terrified of Maurice Sendak’s book “Where the Wild Things Are”. I never got sent to my room without dinner, because I did not want to travel to the land where the wild things are. I didn’t care that they ended up being a fairly friendly family. The point of the book was well taken by me. I wanted to stay with my own family. But I could just imagine my bedroom turning into a jungle. I think that was the creepiest part.

Interestingly enough, Max’s bedroom never turns into the jungle where the wild things are in the movie adaptation. I suppose that is one of the many aspects of the movie with which many would-be fans are taking umbrage. But like many movie adaptations of books, especially very short children’s books, the film must stray from its source material. Heck in the book the wild things all look different but pretty much all act the same. No individual personalities stick out. This is an area of the story the movie greatly improves upon. You can read my full-length review of the movie here.

No, this is not a horror movie, but it deals with life issues that are scary for kids. This emphasis on the theme of the book rather than the action of its story is probably what has turned many viewers off to it. But that makes it a stronger story than in its original medium. And hey, a movie where a monster puts a little boy in her mouth but doesn’t eat him really belongs in Horrorfest.

Another non-horror horror movie to mark this year’s festival is “Wristcutters: A Love Story”. Get this… As you may have guessed from the title, this is a love story. It’s a love story that takes place in a sort of purgatory world where “everything is pretty much the same as in life, but just a little worse.” This is the place where suicides go after their success. Our hero killed himself after his girlfriend broke up with him. When he learns from a recent suicide that she may have killed herself in grief of him, he sets out to find her.

It is an odd, quirky and intriguing set up that has fun exploring this theoretical afterlife. Unfortunately, its love story is an all too typical pairing of people who don’t notice the obvious attraction they share toward each other except as the conveniences of the plot dictates them to.

Although again not technically horror, a movie about the afterlife of suicides not only deals with dead people, but it’s slightly disturbing. With a name like “Wristcutters”, it was begging to be on the Horrorfest schedule; and despite its shortcomings, it’s disturbing in a cute and funny way.

And that brings me to one of the more disappointing entries on this year’s Horrorfest lineup. Since when did storytellers forget what the vampire myth is all about? Haven’t these people read Bram Stoker? What saddens me most about “30 Days of Night” is not that it is a disappointing vampire movie, but that it was first an apparently inept vampire comic book? Can it be that even in the literature stage of this story’s life it was just as oblivious to vampire lore as it is in its film incarnation?

I’ve never read the comic book. I certainly hope the filmmakers stupidly chose to leave all of the sex out of their adaptation. Without any sex, this is simply a trapped monster movie. With it’s isolated location and limited cast count versus an army a vampires, this is just an inferior version of “Aliens”, without even the corporate corruptions commentary. Vampires are supposed to represent the sexual sins of man and our on going individual battle with our own morality. The vampire is supposed to be a monstrous incarnation of lust. Here they’re just monsters.

But forgetting all the abandoned allegorical issues of man’s blood and sex lust, is “30 Days of Night” at least a good scary monster movie? Not really. It starts out good, but once the vampires descend upon the snowbound arctic town of Barlow, there is little mystery and less bite than the filmmakers would like you to believe. It’s really just a slaughter of the few towns’ people that are there. That’s not scary. Now, one vampire, and nobody knows which one of them is the vampire or who he might’ve turned because it is always night, so nobody needs to hides from the sun for their survival, now that would be scary!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are / *** (PG)

Max: Max Records
Mom: Catherine Keener

With the voice talents of:
Carol: James Gandolfini
Judith: Catherine O’Hara
KW: Lauren Ambrose
Douglas: Chris Cooper
Ira: Forest Whitacker
Alexander: Paul Dano

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Spike Jonze. Written by Jonze & Dave Eggers. Based on the book by Maurice Sendak. Running time: 94 min. Rated PG (for mild thematic elements, some adventure action, and brief language).

I can hear the complaints. “It’s not a kids movie.” “It’s depressing.” “It’s not any fun.” In fact, Warner Bros. Pictures felt director Spike Jonze’s original cut of the film was so family unfriendly they made him go back and re-edit some of it. So this is the more family friendly version of the film. But whatever you think the movie should be, it’s still a good movie. Possibly a little slow and a little too devoid of humor, but “Where the Wild Things Are” is a smart look at how difficult it can be for a kid to understand just how complicated life can be.

To say this isn’t a kids movie is to ignore half—if not more—of what childhood is about. Max (newcomer Max Records) is a boy who must often play by himself because the people closest to him have other things to worry about in their lives. So Max builds forts in the snow by himself and terrorizes his dog and desperately seeks the attention of his Mom (Catherine Keener, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”), who despite her love for him has many concerns beyond Max—work, her ex-husband, a boyfriend.

Max has a vibrant imagination. When Mom is having a rough day, she has Max make up a story for her. One evening after Max pushes his Mom’s buttons to the point where she becomes very angry with him, he runs away. He finds a boat and sails across a sea. He discovers a land inhabited by wild beasts who behave very strangely. After he diffuses a situation with one of the beasts named Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini, “Romance & Cigarettes”), he convinces the small clan of creatures to make him their king.

Jonze’s script, co-written by Dave Eggers (“Away We Go”), obviously expands a great deal on Maurice Sendak’s children’s book. He uses all of the monsters seen in Sendak’s book as they were designed by the writer/artist. But unlike the book, each monster is fleshed out into an individual. Each of the monsters contains elements of Max’s own personality. Judith (voiced by Catherine O’Hara, “For Your Consideration”) is the side of his personality that is always negative. Alexander (Paul Dano, “There Will Be Blood”), the smallest monster, reflects the side of Max that feels no one ever pays any attention to him. The talented tunnel builder Ira (Forest Whitacker, “The Last King of Scotland”) is quiet and content. Douglas (Chris Cooper, “Adaptation”) is the consummate friend, even when his arm is ripped off! The Bull (Michael Berry Jr., “Star Trek”) is an ever present, seemingly imposing force, who turns out to be quite sweet when he finally speaks. KW (Lauren Ambrose, “Starting Out in the Evening”) is the one who is breaking away from the juvenile antics of the rest of the group, the element in Max ready to make the leap into adulthood.

Carol is the most like Max’s surface personality, the one who Max learns the most from. What their relationship amounts to is a deep examination of how the mind of a child works. The child wants everything to be the way he expects it to be, and a child’s expectations are as grand as their imaginations. Max proposes the building of a giant home for the entire monster clan, with an underground tunnel from one part to another. This fort will spring as a trap when anything enters that one doesn’t want to be there. What Max’s grand design does not consider is that each monster may not have the same wants and desires. These creatures’ personalities are as divergent as any group of people.

For all its insight into a child’s psychology, the one thing that “Where the Wild Things Are” is a bit light on is the fun. It is a dark film that misses much of the zeal of life children are able to express, even moments after their world has been devastated. When Max first arrives among the wild things, they do spend some time romping around having fun. But this whole environment is so foreign to the audience; we never really get a chance to relax in it before the tensions begin to arise amongst the monster clan. Plus the “real world” Max exists in is so fraught with the tensions of everyday life; we get the impression that Max lives a depressing life. I don’t think Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”) intend this, but we needed to see a good time for Max. We almost get that in the snowball fight, but that goes bad.

Many have complained, “This isn’t a children’s movie.” Hogwash, I say. My boy said, “This is sad.” But he sat riveted throughout most of it and said he enjoyed it when it was over. “Zombieland” isn’t a kid’s movie. “Inglourious Basterds” isn’t a kid’s movie. But there is hardly a movie made without graphic violence and sex that isn’t a “kid’s movie.” Movies are made out of fantasy—even those based on fact. Movies are often our primary connection with our childhood once we reach adulthood. And to say something that is thoughtful, intelligent, and even sad isn’t for kids is to deny that kids are capable of these characteristics. “Where the Wild Things Are” may not be what we as adults want out of a kid’s movie; but it is of childhood, and therefore something for a kid’s wonderment.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Horrorfest 09 Special Report: “The Strangers” and the Cinema of Brutality

After seeing the fascinating and disturbing picture “The Strangers”, I was struck by a new and somewhat disconcerting trend in horror over the past decade. There has been an increasing trend toward the depiction of brutality in cinema in general, but most profoundly seen in the horror genre. The connection seems obvious at first. If you’re watching a movie about a serial killer, there is going to be some level of brutality involved. But there’s a difference between violence and brutality, even graphic violence does not necessarily entail the depiction of brutality.

I enjoyed most of this intense thriller about a couple that comes home from a wedding reception very late at night. After a strange woman knocks on their door at 4 a.m. looking for someone else, a group of three people wearing masks begins to psychologically torture the couple. At first just working on their fears by making noises outside and trying to get in, but eventually much darker intentions are pursued and eventually the couple is physically tortured and then killed.

The majority of the picture is fascinating, skillfully made, and totally frightening. But in the final moments, when the psychological torture had given way to physical, I couldn’t help but wonder why I would want to watch this. Although the director makes it clear from the beginning of the film how it will end, the majority of the running time is filled with suspense over just what is happening to the couple. What terrible things do these strangers have planned for them? How will they remain hidden and protected from these vicious killers? How will they escape? How can they fight back? Will they get help?

But once they’ve been captured, the game is up. The final ten minutes of the movie is just a voyeuristic look at the brutal things terrible people will do just for the hell of it, and suddenly it is no longer a horror movie. Rather it is a snuff film, entering territory that is more like pornography than art. It’s something I get no excitement from. The characters ask their killers, “why are you doing this?’ and I have the same question for the filmmakers.

I’ve seen several films in this same vein during Horrorfest over the past couple of years. Last year it was both the original and Hollywood remake of “Funny Games”, and a couple of years ago it was the controversial movie “Chaos”. While Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” tells a similar story as “The Strangers” of some home intruders that torture and murder a family, it is an expertly told game for these murderers. Certainly not for the faint of heart, but the skilful filmmaking keeps the voyeurism above the level of exploitation. “Chaos”, although it was famously accused of being exploitation by Roger Ebert, is a much more structured story, that unfortunately sails off course in its final moments.

Then there are the “torture porn” movies like the “Saw” franchise and the “Hostel” films. For the most part these movies are structured as ridiculous games for the victims involved and therefore fall more along the lines of silly horror fantasies rather than as true disturbing voyeurism. But all of these films add to a sense that our culture is becoming more desensitized to the truly disturbing.

I would guess it’s the goal of these filmmakers to present this material to be just as disturbing as it actually is and therefore present a purposeful feeling of unpleasantness about murder and torture, but again I feel compelled to ask why would I want to see that. It isn’t that these are necessarily bad movies. As I’ve stated, several of them are skillfully—some even artfully—made, but there is a line where the entertainment factor disappears and what is left is merely depravity. Is that a line that should be crossed?