Monday, November 28, 2011

Melancholia / ***½ (R)

Justine: Kirsten Dunst
Claire: Charlotte Gainsbourg
John: Kiefer Sutherland
Michael: Alexander Skarsgård
Tim: Brady Corbet
Leo: Cameron Spurr
Gaby: Charlotte Rampling
Little Father: Jesper Christensen
Dexter: John Hurt
Jack: Stellan Skarsgård
Wedding Planner: Udo Kier

Magnolia Pictures presents a film written and directed by Lars von Trier. Running time: 136 min. Rated R (for some graphic nudity, sexual content and language).

Lars von Trier’s latest opus “Melancholia” is like a symphony imagined on screen, telling an intimate story that spans the cosmic into profound examination of humanity’s universal desires and fears. Wow, I’m not sure I could’ve made it sound less appealing. Like all of Von Trier’s work, it is a challenging movie. It’s a challenge that yields unique and exquisite reward, however.

“Melancholia” opens with a prologue of images that operates like a visual overture to the entire movie. The images we see give us impressionistic ideas of the story and themes we are about to see in the main body of the film. The images are striking, evoking some of the same feelings as Terrence Malik’s masterpiece from earlier this year, “The Tree of Life”. The images are not meant to be taken literally and play like something out of a music video. They are necessary to prepare you for the scope of the themes that will evolve out of a story that seems more intimate than the cosmic climax that ends it.

We meet a couple on their wedding day. They travel in the back of a white stretch limo. We never see the driver well. This is their day. The limo is stuck navigating a narrow lane, and eventually both the bride and groom try their hand at navigating the stones lining the drive. Eventually they walk to their destination. They don’t seem to take this development as the omen it may be.

The bride is Justine. Her sister Claire has made all the wedding arrangements and has spent two hours trying to keep the patience of each of the guests in line. The first part of this movie is named after Justine. It’s a sonata, where Justine sings her own song, shutting the other characters out. The second part is named after Claire. Claire’s movement is more of a fugue where other voices also contribute to her story and influence her direction.

Justine appears to suffer some form of mental illness. I would guess she is bipolar. Kirsten Dunst (“Spider-Man”) perfectly captures the untamable spirit of her needy character, going from sparkling happiness to lifeless depression at the drop of a dime. Justine spends her wedding night alternately reveling in a dream wedding at her brother-in-law’s majestic resort estate and spiraling down into a depression that will never allow her the happiness that everyone who surrounds her tries so hard to give her.

Claire, in contrast to her sister, is someone who tries to make others happy. It’s obvious after years of dealing with her sister’s unpredictability, she wishes things were different. Still she does all she can to care for her sister, while her husband, John, would rather give up on Justine. Claire’s half of the film takes place several days after the failed nuptials, after Justine has crash-landed back into her care at her husband’s golf resort. Charlotte Gainsbourg continues to impress me with her adaptability as an actress in the role of Claire. Here she seems naturally put upon by, not only her sister, but her husband and others. In her last film for Von Trier, “Anichrist”, her role was more like Justine. She seemed just as natural a choice for that one.

Throughout the sisters’ dilemma a cosmic event of unprecedented nature is occurring. A small planet named Melancholia, after its blue hue, is set to pass very close to Earth’s orbit. Claire feels fear, fueled by internet conspiracy theories, that the planet is actually on a collision course with Earth. John assures Claire that the scientific calculations are correct and it will pass them by. He’s quite excited about the event. Kiefer Sutherland is surprisingly effective in the role of John. He brings the only glimmers of humor to the proceedings with how put out he is by Justine and her histrionics.

Von Trier may take the events past the point he needs to for what is one of the most inevitable conclusions any movie could have. We know what’s going to happen, and I’m not sure why he insists on showing us. Perhaps he’s trying to say something about the ever-hopeful nature of man, but I don’t think he makes that clear. It just seems like the movie should’ve ended once the conclusion became obvious to the audience and characters. I also didn’t understand why Claire was so worried about the planet hitting the Earth. Certainly worry about such an event is natural, but after a certain point it becomes futile. If it does hit the Earth, that’s it and there’s nothing to be done about it. I’m not sure what she thinks she can do if her fears are realized.

Despite these minor detractors, Von Trier has made one of the most beautiful films of his career with “Melancholia”. The production is profound with stunning imagery. This isn’t the lo-fi Dogma ’95 style of filmmaking that Von Trier is often credited with creating. This is glorious stuff with the same depth of human observation that accompanies all of Von Trier’s work. It’s difficult territory here, but the rewards it yields are worth the effort.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Nov. 18-24

Terri (2011) ***½
Director: Azazel Jacobs
Writers: Patrick Dewitt, Azazel Jacobs
Starring: Jacob Wysocki, John C. Reilly, Bridger Zadina, Creed Bratton, Olivia Crocicchia

Why does it take an independent film to see high school as it really is? “Terri” tells the story of an over weight high school boy, and his search to find a way to fit in. Although he’s large, it isn’t about his size. Much is made about his man boobs, as would be the case with the sensitivity levels of most high school environments, but Terri’s problems fitting in root down further than just his weight.

An actor who is new to me plays Terri. Jacob Wysocki is the definition of a natural actor. Nothing he does seems affected in the slightest. Rarely do you find a new actor, or an overweight actor even, that feels so natural on screen. There is no sense of self-consciousness from Wysocki, which make his one of the most affecting performances of the year.

Terri is befriended by his high school principal, played by John C. Reilly, who I can imagine playing a role like Terri when he was that age. Reilly seems to have a pattern of picking out the strange kids of the school and befriending them. At first, there’s the suspicion of an ulterior motive, but it soon becomes clear that Reilly’s character is just as genuine as Terri.

The movie isn’t really about their relationship as much as it is about being a high school kid. There’s a great deal here involving experimentation with drugs and sex. These “freaks” are only trying to have the same high school experience as their piers. Like their piers, they often find these are experiences they are not quite emotionally mature enough to handle. “Terri” acts as a clear window to show us that even those kids who are different aren’t so different from the rest of us.

To Be or Not To Be (1983) **
Director: Alan Johnson
Writers: Thomas Meehan, Ronny Graham, Melchoir Lengyel (story), Ernst Lubitsch (story), Edwin Justus Mayer (1942 screenplay)
Starring: Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Tim Matheson, Charles Durning, Jose Ferrer, Christopher Lloyd, James Haake, George Wyner, George Gaynes, Lewis J. Stadlen, Jack Riley

A remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 movie “To Be or Not To Be”, about a polish acting troupe that escapes Warsaw during the German invasion, could’ve been a worthwhile endeavor. I don’t know why someone decided to make it into a Mel Brooks spoof. I’m sure the original, unseen by me, spoke to Brooks in a very personal way. But, the typical spoof delivery of lines and comedic material has an insincerity that works against the serious foundations of the World War II setting.

Brooks casts not only his wife but also a good deal of his frequent company of players in the movie; further emphasizing it’s slapstick delivery. Now, it is a talented cast, but they all seem to be operating in Brooks spoof mode, rather than a more straightforward comedic mode that relies on the material more so than a slapstick delivery. Only the great Jose Ferrer seems to be playing the material straight.

This seems like a missed opportunity by Brooks to make a movie with a subject matter that meant something to him and other Jewish performers, and bring the spotlight back to a forgotten classic of cinema. It seems like the ingredients for a good dramedy were in place, it’s too bad the people making it didn’t seem to know that.

Jane Eyre (2011) ***½
Director: Cary Fukunaga
Writers: Moira Buffini, Charlotte Brontë (novel)
Starring: Mia Masikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench, Jamie Bell, Sally Hawkins

Oh, those wacky Brontë sisters. They truly were the gross out comediennes of the English romance set. Their outrageous characters always threw such parties of debauchery and chased those husky huntsmen around the tropical English countryside when all the while it was the nerdy kid they got stuck getting a ride from they should’ve been after the whole time. Of course, they always eventually came around and made the dreams of all nerds come true by whisking away into the sunset with the brainy one. Such good times with these girls, wasn’t it?

Western of the Week

Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971) **
Director: Burt Kennedy
Writer: James Edward Grant
Starring: James Garner, Suzanne Pleshette, Jack Elam, Harry Morgan, Joan Blondell, Marie Windsor, John Dehner, Henry Jones, Dub Taylor, Kethleen Freeman

I suppose “Support Your Local Gunfighter” is exactly what it is supposed to be, a comedic western starring James Garner. The filmmakers even reunited most of the cast from the earlier, and better, “Support Your Local Sherriff”. This isn’t a sequel to that, but it sort of succeeds as one. Although Garner is playing a different character in theory, it’s really the same character that everyone wanted to see Garner playing since he found his original television success as “Maverick”.

“Gunfighter” is really just a little too goofy to work. It plays like slapstick, which was fine for the early 70s I suppose, but just doesn’t mesh well with what the west has become in most filmgoer’s minds. The film is populated by a plethora of fun characters, most notably Jack Elam playing Garner’s clueless cohort and Suzanne Pleshette as the plucky love interest. It moves at a snappy pace. It involves a con man who wants to get in and out of town as fast as possible, but can’t help getting caught up in a mining feud for money when he can’t keep himself away from the roulette wheel. When it comes down to it, this movie really isn’t very funny. It’s fun, but not funny.

Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas (2011) **½
Director: Karen Disher
Starring: Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Queen Latifah, Dennis Leary, Ciara Bravo, T.J. Miller, Josh Peck, Seann William Scott, Chris Wedge, Billy Gardell, Judah Friedlander

Of all the new Christmas specials to come out over the past few years, “Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas” seems to accomplish the least. That is to say it accomplishes what it sets out to do. It places characters from a popular film franchise into a holiday plot that finds them possibly ruining Christmas and then they fix it. It accomplishes this with about the same efficiency as this description.

Luckily, there’s always Scrat and his acorns. This Christmas special give us a couple of little Scrat moments that, as usual, have nothing to do with the main storyline. There are a few good laughs from the main story as well. A few involve Christmas traditions that are invented by Manny the Mammoth as a way to keep his daughter Peaches in line, a few more by Sid the Sloth, who just invents them for the hell of it. What a surprise for them to find that Santa is just getting his workshop started and could use a little help setting up some of those traditions. Forget that Christmas is centered on the birth of Christ, which had yet to happen.

Comedian T.J. Miller voices the reindeer Prancer and was probably the most interesting element of the special. I wish the story had been more centered on his character, who claims Prancer to be a family name and not feminine at all.

Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown (2010) ***
Directors: Andrew Beall, Frank Molieri
Writers: Craig Schulz, Stephan Pastis, Charles M. Schulz (characters)
Starring: Trenton Rogers, Shane Baumel, Blesst Bowden, Ciara Bravo, Austin Lux, Amanda Pace, Andy Pessoa, Grace Rolek  

Although “Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown” is a new addition to the cannon of classic cartoons, it does a good job of capturing the Peanuts gang spirit. Compiled from several of the actual comic strip bits about Linus and his blanket—at least I’m pretty sure it was compiled from earlier work, because I recognized several of the bits—the movie is really a series of vignettes that tell an overall story about Linus trying to give up his precious blanket. Huh! “Precious.” That makes me wonder if Charles Schulz was a big fan of Tolkien’s Middle Earth books. There are certainly similarities between Gollum and Linus.

The movie is cute and simple in that intelligent way that makes the Peanuts characters so appealing and so enduring. Unlike most of today’s family fare, the movie never pushes for laughs or rushes through the actions and thoughts of the characters. These are smart children that are still most certainly children. Most of the Peanuts primaries are featured here—Snoopy, Chuck, Linus, Lucy, Sally, Schroeder, and Pig Pen. They make their typically pointed observations about each other and what it’s like to think like a kid.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

J. Edgar / *** (R)

J. Edgar Hoover: Leonardo DiCaprio
Clyde Tolson: Armie Hammer
Helen Gandy: Naomi Watts
Annie Hoover: Judi Dench
Robert Kennedy: Jeffrey Donovan
Colonel Schwarzkopf: Dermot Mulroney
Charles Lindbergh: Josh Lucas
John Condon: Zach Grenier
Bruno Hauptmann: Damon Harriman

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Dustin Lance Black. Running time: 137 min. Rated R (for brief strong language).

“Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.”
       —William Shakespeare, “Othello” Act II, sc. 3.

John Edgar Hoover, the man often credited with the creation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, could hardly be accused of being an idle man, but in the eyes of many of his detractors he was best seen as an opportunist, worst as a fraud. Clint Eastwood’s new movie “J. Edgar” explores the motivations that drove this somewhat reclusive public figure who changed the course of crime science at a time in this country’s history when the criminals were being touted as folk heroes. All the while, he hid a secret that would eventually alter public perception of a man who dedicated his life to his country. Was he really a homosexual? I’m not sure Eastwood is as interested in the facts here as he is in how that possibility may have shaped the man who held great power over every president that served while he was director of the nation’s police force.

Directing from a script by Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), Eastwood presents Hoover’s story under the framing device of a manuscript Hoover dictates to young FBI agents throughout his final years as director. Hoover tells his own story in flashbacks, alluding to his rumored homosexuality, but never stating it. More important to Hoover in the manuscript is his reputation as the man who altered the course of the country’s law enforcement system through the implementation of the criminal sciences.

Hoover begins his story with his involvement in countering the Bolshevik Revolution as it spilled over into the U.S. in the form of terrorist attacks against political figures, including his own boss at the U.S. Department of Justice, Attorney General Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Pierson, “Dexter”).  Hoover was appointed director of the newly formed Bureau of Investigation in 1924 as Palmer left public service. Eastwood and Black play with the facts a little here, suggesting that Palmer did not survive the restructuring of the Department of Justice by the newly elected administration. Many of the facts are flexible in this screenplay as it toys with the notion of Hoover as a master manipulator both politically and with his own self-perception.

Hoover’s primary influence in life is his mother (Judi Dench, “Quantum of Solace”). Annie Hoover fosters his ambition. She sees his father and brother as failures, and may have driven them there with her harshness and overt favoritism of John. Certainly, she fuels him professionally and personally, yet, she warns him against his personal choices for their threat against his career.

Mrs. Hoover is not the only woman in his life. Ever present is his career-long personal secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts, “King Kong”), to whom he makes an awkward proposal early in their careers. The scene proves Hoover knows nothing of the emotions of love, but feels he must copy what he has seen in terms of courtship. Despite his superficial advances, Gandy remains loyal to Hoover throughout his career, even dispatching with his infamous confidential files once it’s clear that the Nixon administration is determined to end his legendary run as the FBI director.

The most important relationship in Hoover’s life, however, arrives in the form of a stunning young lawyer by the name of Clyde Tolson. Armie Hammer made a splash last year playing both Winklevoss twins in the award winning “The Social Network”. Here he provides another emotional performance as Hoover’s would be lover. This is where Black’s screenplay really shines with the subtle management of the men’s feelings for each other. Both are career-minded men. Both know if any hint of their feelings were known, even to each other, it would mean the end of all they’d worked for and achieved.

Surely, the most talked about element of this movie will be its central performance by Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover. It’s one of those transformational performances where an actor has obviously studied his subject to the point where he has absorbed Hoover’s essence. Like his performance as Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese’s underrated “The Aviator”, Dicaprio doesn’t so much imitate Hoover as he does channel the man. Even in old age make up, he’s able to capture the dichotomy of a man driven by ambition and pained by his own personal secrets. There’s no mistake that a man with such a big secret to hide is obsessed by keeping tabs on the secrets of others. I liked how his use of the confidential files to intimidate and influence those around him is more about keeping what’s in them secret than threatening to expose them.

“J. Edgar” is not the strongest Eastwood film to come from the master director. Of course, with the decade long string of excellence Eastwood has produced prior to this movie, it would be hard to continue to top himself. The inaction of keeping secrets does little to draw the audience in. The relationship between Hoover and Tolson goes almost the entire running length of the film before being acknowledged in any definitive way. Even so, “J. Edgar” turns out to be one of the most unique biopics I’ve seen because of its supposition of the facts. Unlike most biopics, “J. Edgar” is not based on any sort of source material, but is original unto itself. Even Hoover might approve of its use of allusion above revelation.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Nov. 11-17

Dreams (1990) **½
Director/Writer: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Alira Terao, Mitsuko Baishô, Toshie Negishi, Mieko Harada, Mitsunori Isaki, Toshihiko Nakano, Yoshitaka Zushi, Hisashi Igawa, Chôsuke Ikariya, Chishû Ryû, Martin Scorsese

Ever since I saw Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” for a Shakespeare class in college, I have been a convert to a man I feel comfortable calling the best cinematic director ever. That doesn’t mean that everything he made was gold. It does mean that even his coal is worth watching.

To give the man a little slack, “Dreams” was made when Kurosawa was already 80 years old (he would direct two more before his death in 1998). The film was based entirely on dreams the director himself had. It’s really an anthology piece involving eight separate stories with only a single character, presumably Kurosawa’s alter ego, appearing in every one. Some of the dream segments are philosophical (“Crows”, “Village of the Watermills”), some are frightening (“The Tunnel”, “Mount Fuji in Red”), some are right out of the “Twilight Zone” (“Sunshine Through the Rain”, “The Blizzard”).

Despite the imagination involved and the stunning imagery provided by Kurosawa, “Dreams” never really takes off and flies. The anthology format is restricting when dealing with Kurosawa’s great strength of building stories around characters. Much of the film drags in its own unusualness. His only point is to depict these dreams, but he doesn’t really seem to have much to say about them. They are presented with the same mater of fact nature as some of Kurosawa’s great classics, but they really demand a more unusual touch. Certainly, even this Kurosawa will serve to enlighten anyone who sees it, but it’s not the place to start when building your appreciation for cinema’s greatest visionary.

Western of the Week

The Warrior’s Way (2010) **
Director/Writer: Sngmoo Lee
Starring: Dong-gun Jang, Kate Bosworth, Geoffrey Rush, Danny Huston, Tony Cox, Lung Ti

I guess “The Warrior’s Way” is trying to be a cross between a classic American western, a Japanese Samurai flick, and something related to “Sin City”. It’s actually a Korean brainchild and it’s a little too goofy to pull off its ambitious premise. That’s mostly because its execution is only set on the level of a B-grade action flick.

The story involves an assassin who has become “the greatest swordsman ever” and on the verge of destroying his clan’s enemy, decides to call it quits. Perhaps that’s because the final member of the opposing clan is just a baby girl. Perhaps it’s because the plot requires a betrayal so he can be hunted for the rest of the movie.

He decides to hide in the American Wild West, finding his way to Lode, the strangest western town you’ve ever seen. It seems to have been established and entirely populated by circus show freaks. A vile man, who seems to command thousands, played by perennial villain Danny Huston, also persecutes the town. Yes, there’s a love interest and a big showdown at the end involving the townsfreaks, the Huston gang and the assassin’s former clan. I’ll give it points for keeping its options open with two sets of bad guys.

Unfortunately, the director’s vision seems to have exceeded his budget. Many of the fake backdrops look as it they’re supposed to replicate the stylization of a “Sin City” or “300” type of movie, but they’re so poorly done it just looks like cheap production values. The action is beyond ludicrous and too often looks “fake” rather than stylized. The middle segments of the movie take more time to flesh out the story and characters, and for a brief period it seems the movie will redeem itself, but then the goofy stylized action returns for the final showdown and the B-level production values can just no longer bear their weight.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) ****
Director: Robert Mulligan
Writers: Horton Foote, Harper Lee (novel)
Starring: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, John Megna, Brock Peters, Frank Overton, Collin Wilcox, James Anderson, Robert Duvall

A few weeks ago the local cinema in my hometown celebrated its one-year anniversary under new independent management. The new management has done an incredible job with the small old-fashioned three-screen cinema. The recent transfer to all digital projection has transformed the old theater house into a modern cinematic wonder. As part of their first anniversary celebration they held a free screening of a cinema classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

The film adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic American novel involving civil rights in a Southern courtroom as seen through the eyes of children has been one discordant for critics. Some say it’s as much a classic as the book. Others argue it doesn’t live up to its reputation. Either way it’s a seminal film in the civil rights movement because the point of view comes from the children, who we all know see the world without the filters we put on our own views as we grow older.

I brought my oldest boy to see it on the big screen with me. He’s the budding cineaste of the tribe and the only one I felt could really appreciate such a classic. I remember going to see my first adult minded movie with my mother when I was about his age. That one was “On Golden Pond”, and I never forgot the experience. I was very anxious to see what he felt about the movie. There were some moments where it lost him, but he seemed very connected with it throughout most of the screening.

He said he loved it, except for the courtroom scenes. Those were boring. Having seen it for the first time as an adult myself, the courtroom scenes were the ones I remembered best. I’d forgotten how much of the movie was about the kids just being kids, spending their summers looking for trouble to fight the boredom, getting into the Radley’s business when they shouldn’t. Trying to understand what their high-minded father was trying to do for the black man he was defending in court. I was impressed how director Robert Mulligan and screenwriter Horton Foote worked the issues of prejudice and injustice into the everyday lives of being kids. In the context of childhood, the kids were only being children; but in the context of the civil rights movement, they get right to the heart of the country’s most divisive issues of the time.

It’s difficult for me to judge the cinematic quality of this film, because the issues at its core strike such a cord with me. I think the use of a childhood context is ingenious of both Mulligan and Lee in her original novel. It was such a joy to discuss these important issue with my son afterward, and rewarding that he showed genuine interest in something other than giant robots fighting each other in the streets of Chicago. Jack’s future as a filmgoer looks bright, and if the Marshall Cinema continues to program such quality films along with the current mainstream fare, it will prove to be a quality resource for Marshall’s children for generations to come.

Tales from Earthsea (2010) **
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Writers: Goro Miyazaki, Keiko Niwa, Hayao Miyazaki (story), Ursula K. LeGuin (novel)
Starring: Matt Levin, Timothy Dalton, Willem Dafoe, Cheech Marin, Mariska Hargitay, Blaire Restaneo

Earlier I talked of Akira Kurosawa as perhaps the greatest filmmaker of all time. One of the few directors who could challenge Kurosawa’s position in my opinion is the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. Responsible for the Academy Award winning “Spirited Away” as well as many other anime classics, Miyazaki’s strength has always been his signature hand drawn animation and his incredible imagination for creatures, magic, and their connection with nature and the planet.

At age 70, Miyazaki has slowed down his own film production. His last film was the incredibly charming “Ponyo”, based on the same Hans Christian Anderson tale that inspired “The Little Mermaid”. His Studio Ghibli animation studio still cranks out animation for the ages; even when it doesn’t come from the master himself. Recently, his son Goro Miyazaki has gotten into the game, although Hayao has said that he must create a name for himself. “Tales from Earthsea” is Goro’s first feature anime, adapted from a novel by one of his father’s major influences, Ursula K. LeGuin.

It’s obvious that Hayao is allowing Goro to make his own mistakes in this film, but Goro doesn’t stray far from the themes and elements that populate his father’s work.
“Tales from Earthsea” tells the story of a boy who murders his father for reasons unknown even to him. A wizard, who is locked in an ongoing battle with a former disciple, takes him in.

There is much said about the dying ways of old and the relationship of the world to the planet. There are dragons and swords and magic, but there isn’t much spark. Much of the film drags as it mistakes inactivity for introspection. The action of the movie is just that, action with little substance behind it. It’s reflective of his father’s early work, but it lacks the ambition of even a young Hayao Miyazaki movie. It also lacks the invention and spirit of his father’s work. There’s a glimmer of his father’s magic, but Goro needs a lot of work. Hopefully, his dad will relent and help him along just a little bit.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas / *** (R)

Harold: John Cho
Kumar: Kal Penn
Todd: Tom Lennon
Adrian: Amir Blumenfeld
Maria: Paula Garcés
Mr. Perez: Danny Trejo
Mary: Jordan Hinson
Sergei Katsov: Elias Koteas
Baby Ava: Hannah Cross
Neil Patrick Harris: Neil Patrick Harris

New Line Cinema presents a film directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson. Written by Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg. Running time: 90 min. Rated R (for strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, pervasive language, drug use and some violence).

As I walked into “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas”—the only guilty pleasure movie for which I can remember feeling such high (wink, wink) anticipation—the guy handing out the 3D glasses says to me with obvious disdain, “Do you like Harold & Kumar?” I told him I enjoyed the previous two movies in the franchise. “I just don’t get their humor, and they just go way over the top in this one,” he says. Well, I believe that’s the only point in making a 3D Christmas movie that follows the Christmas Eve exploits of every stoner’s favorite stoners. And, boy does this one deliver.

While I enjoyed the first two “Harold & Kumar” movies, the second slightly more than the first, this one proves the third time is the charm. Or maybe it proves that anything is possible with the holidays; because this time the creators of this most unlikely of movie franchises have the very specific target of holiday movies on which to focus all of their outrageous energies. Roger Ebert suggest a title revision in his review of the movie, “A Very R-Rated Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas”. It’s been a while since an R-Rating was earned with such vigor.

From the opening moments when the cliché Christmas movie soundtrack rings in the happy holiday tidings as Kumar blows 3D smoke rings into the camera with a department store Santa (comedian Patton Oswalt in a cameo), it’s obvious that this is going to be a very special holiday movie indeed. The filmmakers quickly establish that this will take every treasured family moment of the holiday season and trash it with brash vulgarities and obscene behavior. Kumar verbally assaults a line of children waiting to tell Santa their Christmas wishes with language that would make Will Ferrell blush even when he’s not in “Elf”.

As we open on Christmas Eve, we find that Kumar (Kal Penn, “House, M.D.”) and Harold (John Cho, “Star Trek”) haven’t seen each other in quite some time. Kumar is still living the stoner high life, although he must settle for his loser neighbor, Adrian (Amir Blumenfeld, of “Jake and Amir” fame), as a companion. Adrian’s Christmas Eve plans include hooking up with an attractive girl who has solicited sex from him online.

Harold has moved on to Christmas garland greener pastures, settling into family life with his wife, Maria (Paula Graces, “The Shield”). He and Maria have been trying to get pregnant and the pressure is really on because her whole family has come to visit for the holidays. It was a stroke of genius to cast tough guy Danny Trejo (“Machete”) to play Harold’s father-in-law, not just because he’s so intimidating, but because his character is so relentlessly obsessed with the holiday traditions of Christmas. Trejo is just about the only man in Hollywood who could wear a Christmas Tree knit sweater and still look like he might be able to kill you with his pinky.

A package arrives for Harold at Kumar’s apartment, and Kumar decides to break the silence between the two former friends and bring the gift to Harold in person. As these things go in movies like this, soon the two find themselves at the home of a Russian gangster, where they are trying to take his Christmas tree to replace the one Maria’s father grew himself before a lit joint burned it down. They must replace the tree before the family gets back from Christmas Mass. Do I need to tell you that the gangster (Elias Koteas, “The Thin Red Line”) walks in just as the daughter is trying to have sex with an unwilling Harold?

There is not much I can tell you about the plot of this movie that is going to sell you on seeing it for the rather funny entertainment that it is, because it treads the line of absurdity to ridicule all the absurd elements we’ve come to expect in holiday entertainment. The story does feature the unlikely return of Neil Patrick Harris as Neil Patrick Harris. Did you think seeing him gunned down in “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay” would stop him from appearing in this H & K? He still appears on “How I Met Your Mother” every week.

Nothing is sacred in this movie. Even Harold’s dull neighbor Todd (Tom Lennon, “Reno 911!”) gets mixed up in their hijinks with his baby daughter in tow. This kid ends up having terrible things done to her, and somehow they’re funny. There’s also a sequence that takes place in the claymation animated style popularized by such Christmas television classics as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”. One of the Jewish friends from the previous movies has converted to Christianity for the perks. And of course, Santa shows up for some tradition trashing as well.

As the title states, even the third dimension isn’t safe from Harold & Kumar stoner craziness. Todd Strauss-Schulson throws just about everything he can at the audience with his 3D direction. From the aforementioned smoke rings to Occupy Wall Street demonstrators egging executives, from beer pong to phallic candy canes in a Christmas musical extravaganza number, the filmmakers take every opportunity they can to remind you of the 3D craze that has taken over Hollywood. They’re also happy to remind you how it’s all pretty much a gimmick to make you shell out more money for a movie.

Now, I realize that “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” is not for everyone, least of all people who hold Christmas tradition and everyday taste as standards that cannot be mocked. It is way over the top, as described by the scornful movie theater usher. If you don’t get why it’s so over the top, you won’t understand anything about this movie. If, on the other hand, you do understand the humor behind two ethnic Americans who just want to get to White Castle because they have the munchies and they can’t seem to get there, you will enjoy just about every Yule tiding in “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas”.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Nov. 1-10

Horrible Bosses (2011) ***½
Director: Seth Gordon
Writer: Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Starring: Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx

“Horrible Bosses” is a unique guilty pleasure in that the movie itself is so funny there’s no guilt in liking it, only in why. We’ve all had those bosses that you’d just like to see die. You don’t necessarily want to kill them yourself, but hey, if no one else is stepping up…

What this movie gets right is imagining three very different bosses and three wonderful reasons you’d want to kill them. Kevin Spacey’s boss is the most obvious and possibly the least believable in the way he so blatantly abuses his employee, Jason Bateman, to his face. Colin Farrell does the fat suit and bald cap routine to play the son of a wonderful boss to Jason Sudeikis’s character. When that wonderful boss dies, guess who takes over the family business. And, Jennifer Aniston might seem like not such a bad boss with all her sexual advances toward Charlie Day’s character, but the movie makes you realize just how much his situation actually sucks.

Of course, it isn’t the bosses that really make this movie work, but the solid comedic work by Bateman, Sudeikis, and Day. These three are the comedic masters of the movie. Bateman perfected tread upon in his comeback show “Arrested Development” and he uses it here just as well. Sudeikis is one of the few SNL cast members who is even funnier as a normal person than he is as one of his SNL characters. I was unfamiliar with Day’s work before this movie, but now I’m thinking the buzz on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” probably has something to it.

And, I didn’t even mention Jamie Foxx.

Bad Teacher (2011) **
Director: Jake Kasdan
Writers: Gene Stupnitsky, Lee Eisenberg
Starring: Cameron Diaz, Lucy Punch, Jason Segel, Justin Timberlake, Phyllis Smith, John Michael Higgins, Eric Stonestreet, Thomas Lennon

“Bad Teacher” is bad in the moral sense. It’s not that I need my movies to be morally righteous. I certainly don’t. But, if you’re going to take the moral low road, you should really have a point to it all. “Bad Teacher” thinks it can show you the immoral depths of its main characters and get away with making her sympathetic.

Now, along the way there are a good deal of laughs, and Cameron Diaz’s bad teacher isn’t necessarily any worse than those she opposes. Well, no, she is worse. That’s the movie’s problem. The teacher she’s in a battle of wills against, played very well by Lucy Punch as one of those incessantly sunny people, is a bad person. She may not be a bad teacher, however; and she certainly isn’t as bad a person as Diaz here.

The filmmakers want us to be OK with that. Sometimes that symbolizes some sort of message about our society, but I don’t think it does here. In this movie, they’re just trying to shock you with her behavior, but since she’s the main character they want you to root for her too. I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t fly. Not with an educator, it doesn’t.

The Trip (2011) ***
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon

I’m not entirely sure what the point of a movie like “The Trip” is, but it’s entertaining enough to watch. It isn’t a mockumentary. It’s told in a traditional cinematic narrative style, but it stars British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. The premise is that Coogan has been commissioned by a British magazine to review eateries throughout Northern England. After his girlfriend cancels on him, he asks Brydon to accompany him. That’s pretty much it.

The movie acts like a sort of travelogue with Coogan and Brydon trying out their impressions and comedy on each other throughout the driving and eating. It’s funny, but it’s not a flat out comedy. Coogan is a master at creating uncomfortable situations for himself and those around him. Plus, there’s a surprising amount of introspection done by Coogan’s character.

I say Coogan’s character, because he can’t really be playing himself. He wouldn’t want anyone to know this is who he is. There are dramatic elements, too. Coogan struggles with his life choices, but mostly he struggles with the fact that he invited Brydon along with him. Brydon never stops with the impersonations. The impersonation scenes are funny, but you can see how they would wear on you after a week spent with the guy.

I’m not familiar with Brydon’s work, but am quite familiar with Coogan’s. Brydon is an interesting character, but he’s not given as much depth here as Coogan. The direction by Michael Winterbottom, who previously directed Coogan in the excellent “24 Hour Party People” and both Coogan and Brydon in “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story”, does a wonderful job capturing the many faces of England as the background for this kind of dry British humor version of “My Dinner with Andre”.

Tabloid (2011) ***
Director: Errol Morris
Starring: Joyce McKinney, Kent Gavin, Jackson Shaw, Peter Tory, Dr. Hong

“Tabloid” is a return to form for the documentarian of quirky people, Errol Morris. I was not a fan of his last doc “Standard Operating Procedure”, an exploration of the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War. That movie moved away from the oblivious ignorance of most of his subjects and into something a little more subversively vile. That subject really required revelations above observations. Morris’s strength is not investigation, but his ability to observe the absurdities of his subjects. The subject of “Tabloid” is a perfect marriage with Morris.

Joyce McKinney is an unusual type of crazy, a woman who was sent to prison for kidnapping her Mormon boyfriend from a church in England after her left her in Utah. What Morris observes in this documentary is a person who’s own reality does not match what the rest of the world can see. She was a tabloid sensation in England in the 70’s when the kidnapping incident happened. She even made the tabloids again in the Aughts when she had her dog cloned by a Korean scientist.

This is not one of Morris’s best docs. There are some investigative elements that Morris falls short on, like defining just where McKinney obtained her seemingly substantial funding for both the kidnapping and the cloning. It feels like it would be a better fit in a shorter format. It’s the type of subject he explored on his television show “First Person”, lacking the necessary substance for his feature film format. Beyond those slight faults, however, this is a wonderful example of the appeal of Morris’s style of documentary filmmaking. People are freaks, and Morris is more than happy to show us some of the most extreme examples.

Bridesmaids (2011) ***½
Director: Paul Feig
Writers: Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Chris O’Dowd, Melissa McCarthy, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Jon Hamm, Rebel Wilson, Matt Lucas, Michael Hitchcock, Jill Clayburgh

Earlier this year, I contributed to a article about Hollywood’s recent trend in producing ‘R’-rated gross-out comedies. Perhaps the most buzzed about of this year’s entries into the genre is “Bridesmaids”. “Bridesmaids” made an impact for two reasons. 1) It’s very good. 2) It stars, appeals to, and was written by women. The blockbuster success of such gross-outs as “The Hangover” indicated that these hard ‘R’ comedies had broken through the gender barrier. The success of “Bridesmaids” proves it.

Unlike most gross-out comedies, “Bridesmaids” actually has a brain. Co-written by and starring Emmy nominated SNL cast member Kristen Wiig, this movie is more than just a gross-out comedy. The food poisoning scene and sex scenes with an uncredited Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”) solidify its status as gross-out, but it actually considers the actions of Wiig’s heroine. The script doesn’t just accept her behavior as something people do when they’re in a gross-out comedy. It treats them in terms of how they might really impact her life and friendship with the bride, another SNL alumnus Maya Rudolph. Wiig pays for her behavior. Because of this, the audience is allowed to empathize with her, unlike the less successful “Bad Teacher”.

The Eagle (2011) ***
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Writers: Jeremy Brock, Rosemary Sutcliff (novel)
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Denis O’Hare, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, Tahar Rahim, Thomas Henry, Ned Dennehy

I don’t come down on actors too much, but I’ll admit, I was less than impressed with the acting prowess of Channing Tatum when he first came on the scene. With some very smart choices in the past year, however, he’s beginning to bring me around. He surprised me with a charming comedic turn and one of the film’s few bright spots in “The Dilemma”. He’s part of the ensemble cast of Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming “Haywire”. And, earlier this year he appeared in the surprisingly effective sword and sandal adventure “The Eagle”.

Tatum plays a Roman commander who chooses to serve the Empire in Britain, where he hopes to restore his family name. 20 years earlier, his father led a garrison into the North Country and disappeared with the Empire’s valuable golden Eagle standard. Unfortunately, Tatum’s bravery in defending his own troops leads him to injury and an honorable discharge. When he learns of the possibility of finding the standard, he employs his own Britain native slave to search for it with him in the dangerous North Country.

Directed by Kevin Macdonald (“Touching the Void”, “The Last King of Scotland”), who alternates between documentaries and features based on true stories, the movie has the gravity of a true story. Although, as far as I know, it’s based on a fictional novel. Macdonald includes details that suggest the reality of the time rather than the posturing that usually accompanies such period filmmaking.

The conflict of the slave, whose life the Roman commander saved, helping his enemy retrieve something the Empire lost while invading his homeland creates great tension. Tatum is very convincing as the Roman, so full of his own purpose that he little suspects what a difficult choice in which he places his slave. The movie pulls you along with the commander’s purpose, but gives you pause to consider the slave’s position. The final act is a little more standard that the first two, but it all makes for a compelling adventure.

Western of the Week

Buck (2011) **
Director: Cindy Meehl
Starring: Buck Brannaman, Robert Redford, Mary Brannaman, Reata Brannaman

I will not deny that Buck Brannaman is one of the more interesting subjects that could be chosen for a documentary feature. I don’t find him to be one of the more dynamic I’ve seen, however.

Buck is a real life horse whisperer. He was an important consultant on the Robert Redford directed “The Horse Whisperer”, even acting as Redford’s double in many of the horse training scenes. He’s a good man. He seems to have a sound and simple philosophy on life, which he uses dutifully in the many horse-training seminars he hosts throughout each year. And, his skills as horseman are akin to watching a magic show. He just doesn’t present a feature-length’s worth of material.

He’s no fan of his father. He makes that clear. Then he tells us again. And again, and again. He’s a gentle man, who believes that gentleness is the key to training horse and to life. He tells us this and shows us how it works. He tells us again, and shows us again. And again, and again.

There’s about 40 minutes of great material in this documentary stretched out over 90 minutes, but it feels like 130 minutes. This, of course, isn’t Buck’s fault. He’s just the horse whisperer. He’s not a filmmaker. Director and producer Cindy Meehl on the other hand, either needed to get some more material for a feature-length’s worth, or accepted that she only had a documentary short in her camera. She even places the credits at both the beginning and the end of the film. What’s up with that?!

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Puss in Boots / *** (PG)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Puss in Boots: Antonio Banderas
Kitty Softpaws: Salma Hayek
Humpty Dumpty: Zach Galifianakis
Jack: Billy Bob Thornton
Jill: Amy Sedaris

DreamWorks Animation presents a film directed by Chris Miller. Written by Brian Lynch, David H. Steinberg, Tom Wheeler, and Jon Zack. Character created by Charles Perrault. Running time: 90 min. Rated PG (for some adventure action and mild rude humor).

The globalization of our society is well under way, and DreamWorks Animation’s newest feature film is proof of that. When I was a child, the notion of watching a kid’s movie where the use of the Spanish word ‘leche’ was not explained to the dumbfounded American audience was unthinkable. Today, it’s easy enough to figure out that Puss in Boots is referring to his glass of milk when he demands his leche using the thick Hispanic accent of Antonio Banderas.

“Puss in Boots” gives us the first spin off of the widely popular “Shrek” animation franchise. Originally developed as a direct-to-video release, the choice to turn this into a theatrical feature was a wise one by producers. Puss in Boots is one of the most charming characters to come from the “Shrek” universe, one that demands a starring role. Since the project was originally proposed, Hispanic culture has become more widely accepted by the population. When the movie stars two talking cats and a walking, talking egg, their cultural influences hardly matter.

While born of the “Shrek” universe, there is no mention of green ogres to be found here. This is a Puss in Boots adventure, taking place in a Mexican landscape with the tone of a western, not a far cry from this year’s earlier western-themed CGI animated “Rango”. “Puss in Boots” is rooted more in fairy tales than that slightly more mature cartoon, which keeps in tradition with the “Shrek” movies. This particular Puss in Boots adventure seems to take place before this cat burglar ever met any ogres.

We find Puss (Banderas, “Spy Kids”) has already built a reputation that has placed a bounty on his head. He learns of a score that holds special interest to him. Jack (Billy Bob Thornton, “Bad News Bears”) and Jill (Amy Sedaris, “Old Dogs”) are transporting some magical beans. It makes sense that these beans can create a beanstalk portal to a castle in the sky where a goose that can lay golden eggs lives. Puss sees this as a way he might potentially pay off a debt. However, Puss’s initial efforts to steal the beans are thwarted by the sexy thief, Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek, “Grown Ups”). But, it’s Kitty’s employer, Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis, “Due Date”), who has Puss in Boots’ number.

As can be expected, we learn a great deal about PIB’s origins. We find that he was an orphan, who was a favorite of the matron of the facility. He also befriended the bullied Humpty Dumpty at a very young age. The two were best friends until something came between them. I’ll leave those details for the viewer to discover. Suffice it to say, Puss and Humpty have some trust issues to get over if they’re going to find the Golden Goose before Jack and Jill beat them to it.

Director Chris Miller (“Shrek the Third”) and the writing team fill much of the movie with typical cartoon zaniness like a musical number, a very funny feline who never says a word, and the obligatory romantic cues between Puss and Kitty. This is done with the greatest CGI skill and will entertain the all ages audience it’s aiming for. The details of the Latin American environment are convincing in their authenticity and help make this adventure a pleasure to observe. I’m sure the involvement of cinematic master Guillermo Del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) as a producer and voice talent helped shape the wonderful Hispanic atmosphere as well. The heavy involvement of Spanish filmmakers in a Hollywood franchise spin-off such as this is indicative of their overall influence on the art form.  

While “Puss in Boots” is an enjoyable entertainment, it isn’t much beyond that. The 3D is a great improvement over what DreamWorks produced for the final “Shrek” installment. However, if you don’t have a lot invested in CGI cartoon characters or children of your own, there isn’t really anything here to make this a must see animation. “Puss in Boots” is the fun adventure that it’s title character demands. I suppose that’s enough.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Horror Thoughts Final Week: Oct. 28-31

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009) ***
Director: Paul Weitz
Writers: Paul Weitz, Brian Helgeland, Darren Shan (books)
Starring: Chris Massoglia, John C. Reilly, Josh Hutcherson, Jessica Carlson, Michael Cerveris, Ray Stevenson, Patrick Fugit, Orlando Jones, Jane Krakowski, Frankie Faison, Kristen Schaal, Willem Dafoe, Ken Watanabe, Salma Hayek

“Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” is based on a series of books with which I’m unfamiliar. From the movie, I would guess they were aimed at adolescents. The movie, however, has this strange, off-kilter quality to it. It isn’t a comedy, but it isn’t outright horror either. It deals with teenage questions of fitting in, family and loyalty. It’s kind of like a cross between the movie “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, the HBO series “Carnivale” and something more along the lines of “Limony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events”.

It follows a teenager named Darrin, who is a good kid that does most things right. His best friend is a troublemaker who desires to become a vampire. The rest of the movie will, both directly and indirectly, explore their similarities and differences. Darrin, as the star of this adventure, is the one who actually gets turned into a vampire, or half-vampire. The movie does little to distinguish the two beyond the fact that a half vampire can operate during daylight hours.

John C. Reilly plays the vampire who made him this way in a rare role that doesn’t use Reilly as a screw up. There is a war brewing between the vampires, who don’t kill their victims, and the vampanese, who have little regard for life, human or vampire. There’s a pretty impressive supporting cast that doesn’t really get utilized much, but it’s good to see actors like Willem Dafoe and Salma Hayek having fun with fantastical roles.

The movie is oddly entertaining in its fairly innocent way. It doesn’t really play for shock, and it isn’t an unintelligent sort of adventure. It skirts the line between weird and silly, serious and laughable. It isn’t great horror, or even great fantasy; but its fun and could provide an entertaining evening for a family with older children.

The Last Exorcism (2010) **
Director: Daniel Stamm
Writers: Huck Botko, Andrew Gurland
Starring: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Hurtham, Caleb Landry Jones, Tony Bentley

As we have discussed through movies like “Paranormal Activity 3” recently, the phenomenon of ‘found footage’ horror movies has become an industry of its own. Last year’s “The Last Exorcism” was an end of the summer sleeper in the found footage category. It follows a pastor who performs exorcisms. He invites a documentary film crew along on his final exorcism to expose the growing industry for the fraud that it is. But, it may be that his last exorcism is the real thing.

I liked that the story didn’t go in the same directions that I expected it to take. It’s a movie that doesn’t play to the audience’s expectations. It plays with them, and probably tries a little too hard at that. In setting up the audience’s expectations, the characters are painted a little too broadly.

I had trouble believing that they believed who they were. The pastor is a little too smug in his belief that everything he’s preached for most of his life is a lie. The father of the girl supposedly possessed is too much of a religious fanatic and conspiracist. There’s a good reason writers usually make the victims in possession movies non-believers. The girl is too old. She’s supposed to be a teenager and plays it well, but looks like she’s in her 20s, which she is.

It’s easy to get the impression with found footage movies that they are a lazy form of filmmaking. One might think that the filmmakers decided to go with found footage because the characters in the movie wouldn’t worry about framing and story arc and editing, so the filmmakers don’t either. “The Last Exorcism” proves this not to be the case, however, as it gives us a good example of a found footage movie that could’ve used a good deal more artistic editing and restraint. There are many unnecessary shots in this movie that add nothing to the false experience that all this is real. There are establishing shots were there wouldn’t be in a documentary, some repeated images that seem to be there to remind of things we don’t need reminding of, and the whole story is almost a little too clear with nothing left to the imagination. With the misdirection involved in the story, it might be more effective to have the audience fill in some of the blanks on their own.

Inferno (1980) **½
Director/Writer: Dario Argento
Starring: Leigh McCloskey, Irene Miracle, Eleonora Giorgi, Daria Nicolodi, Sacha Pitoeff

“Inferno” is in the same tradition as all the great Italian horror under the direction of one of its greatest artists, Dario Argento. It is filled with the bold bright colors that define the cinematic style of Italian horror. It contains many shocking images. A victim is decapitated in a guillotine with a monstrous hand holding her in place. A woman swims through an underground chamber before a decayed corpse chases her out. A curtain is torn by the fingernails of the dead body concealed behind it. A woman is attacked by a pride of stray cats. A building is engulfed in an inferno of flames as a man chases a mysterious figure.

Unfortunately, “Inferno” is hardly more than the sum of its parts. These images are striking and emotionally provoking, but the movie in which they are found is like a rickety carriage that can hardly contain them. There is a slight attempt at an encompassing story that involves three buildings in three different cities and a mysterious killer that hunts down anyone who seems to have even a hint of what is going on. But, a hint is all you will get. Nobody ever seems to comprehend what is really at work in these buildings, the audience least of all.

I understand that this type of horror is not really about anything beyond its images. Argento has had great success with other attempts at this, such as this movie’s predecessor in his Three Mothers Trilogy, “Suspiria”. In “Inferno”, however, every character seems so dumbfounded by what is going on that you have to wonder why they bother to play along. It isn’t like the audience has any insight that the characters are missing either.

The Ward (2010) *½
Director: John Carpenter
Writers: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen
Starring: Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, Lyndsy Fonseca, Susanna Burney, Dan Anderson, Jared Harris

“The Ward” is American horror maestro John Carpenter’s attempt at replicating an original J-horror flick. It follows a woman who is incarcerated in a mental ward for running around in the woods wearing only her underwear and burning down a house. It’s set in the 60’s when I guess such practices were seen as acts of insanity rather than crime. Of course, they aren’t the real reasons she’s deemed mentally unstable. If you’ve seen “Shutter Island” or countless other horror tales that take place in an asylum, you’ve heard this song before.

I suppose the difference here is that there’s a ghost in the ward. This is one aggressive ghost too. She shows up pretty early attempting to kill the heroine. She even performs perfect lobotomies.

I really expect better from Carpenter than this over done horror drivel. The J-horror elements are perfect examples of how Americans got everything wrong about this horror sub genre. He shows us too much. Tries to shock us out of our seats every time the ghost appears. He creates a ghost that is too much of a presence in the story to actually be scary. There is no hint that the ghost might just be in the heroine’s imagination, which is an irony considering the outcome.

My biggest problem, however, is with the story itself, which is overly predictable. The screenplay doesn’t develop the characters in a way necessary to pull off the trick of it all. And, as usual the hospital staff is vile and morbid in their treatment of the patients, which doesn’t allow for a fully realized environment in which we could care about the inevitable outcome of our heroine’s plight. At least one of the staff members should provide a harborage that would allow the audience to understand just why the patients don’t kill them all.

The one thing that Carpenter gets right is the period setting. The 60’s costumes and atmosphere are excellent and act as reminders that not too long ago women weren’t taken seriously in terms of their own self-image and importance. It’s too bad he couldn’t have incorporated that same period’s film practices into the film’s construction. That could’ve produced a psychological horror show worth seeing.

Santa Sangre (1989) ****
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Writers: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Roberto Leoni, Claudio Argento
Starring: Axel Jodorowsky, Blanca Guerra, Guy Stockwell, Thelma Tixou, Sabrina Dennison, Adan Jodorowsky, Faviola Elenka Tapia

“Santa Sangre” is the successful version of what I wrote about in my review of Dario Argento’s “Inferno”. Co-written and produced by Dario’s younger brother Claudio, “Santa Sangre” is a beautiful marriage of shocking images and actual ideas behind them. Alejandro Jodorowsky has a surer hand in his projects than Dario, or perhaps that should be surer mind. Jodorowsky’s work is much more cerebral than Dario Argento’s, yet it retains the visceral surface.

“Santa Sangre” tells the story of a circus performer, and the madness that envelops him after his father’s affair with the Tattooed Lady sends his mother into a murderous rage. Years later the boy, now a young man, is still haunted by the events of his father’s fate. His mother returns to him, armless, as they were cut off by her husband before the acid she threw on him and his lover took his life. She forces her son to provide his arms for her to return to her circus act. He is compelled to supply his arms even though she won’t allow him to pursue his own passions. When he does the results are similar to his father’s fate.

I consumed the first 40 minutes or so of the film with great delight in what I observed, yet wondered if this movie was really a good fit for Horrorfest. It did not seem Horrorfest material at first, but by the film’s heartbreaking conclusion, it was clear that it was a perfect choice for the festival. I will not reveal the outcome of the boy’s fate, but it is a tale that has been told before in simpler horror styles. It has never been told so beautifully as it is here.

Scream 4 (2011) ***
Director: Wes Craven
Writer: Kevin Williamson
Starring: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Emma Roberts, Marley Shelton, Rory Culkin, Hayden Panettiere, Erik Knudsen, Nico Tortorello, Marielle Jaffe, Anthony Anderson, Adam Brody, Mary McDonnell, Lucy Hale, Shenae Grimes, Anna Paquin, Kristen Bell, Aimee Teegarden, Brittany Robertson, Roger Jackson

“Scream 4” is a return to form for the series that had lost its way in its trilogy conclusion ten years ago. Craven got the original screenwriter, Kevin Williamson, to return to script what has become a new inevitability in Hollywood, the reboot/rebirth of former material for a new generation. The notion works well for the “Scream” premise of spoofing it’s own slasher genre, whilst earnestly producing its own entry into that genre.

Along with the return of Williamson is the return of a cast of characters that know everything about horror movies and even seem to realize they are in one. Unfortunately, with horror, that knowledge alone can’t save you. You have to be playing the right character in the right type of horror movie, at the right time in the series, at the right time in your career.

In every way, this is the right time in their careers for the original three primary cast members to return to this series. Neve Campbell is getting older and threatening to slide too quietly into obscurity. David Arquette might be able to say the same after the demise of his marriage to his “Scream” sweetheart Courteney Cox. Cox has an even better reason to return. She has finally found post-“Friends” success with her television series “Cougar Town”, but she still needs to prove how cool she is by working with her ex as not an ex and giving the film the same super star power she brought to the original.

To find out more about my thoughts on “Scream 4” read my original review here.

Trick ‘r Treat (2007) ***½
Director/Writer: Michael Dougherty
Starring: Dylan Baker, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Rochelle Aytes, Quinn Lord, Lauren Lee Smith, Moneca Delain, Tahmoh Penikett, Brett Kelly, Britt McKillip, Isabelle Deluce, Samm Todd, Leslie Bibb

“Trick ‘r Treat” pulls off the feat of being a very good horror anthology. It does this by confining five separate stories to the same few hours in the same town on the same Halloween night. In fact, it’s so well structured it plays more like a hyperlink story, where the different stories are all interconnected somehow, than an anthology of separate stories.

These dark tales involve a woman who hates Halloween enough to start removing her decorations before the night is over. A malevolent trick-or-treater makes her pay for her disregard for others’ fun. A school principal lures kids to his front steps with candies that are drugged and dispatched them in his back yard. A group of kids pick on a strange girl by fooling her into thinking an old Halloween myth is true only to find out to their own horror that it is all too real. A young girl is pressured by her friends to pick up a guy for a party while a predator stalks her. It turns out the party he follows her to is a little more than the predator can handle. And an old man must pay the price for a mistake made a lifetime ago.

Written and directed by “X2” and “Superman Returns” scribe Michael Dougherty, all the stories have a whimsy to them that is missing in so many of today’s horror efforts. The stories are genuinely scary whilst giving the audience a wink to let us know that this is all for the fun of it. Anna Paquin, the underrated Dylan Baker, and a nearly unrecognizable Brian Cox bring the effortless gift of presence to their roles adding weight to the material. This is a movie that I could actually see as a perennial addition to Horrorfest. It’s that much fun, all in perfect Halloween spirit.

Orphan (2009) ***
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Writers: David Johnson, Alex Mace
Starring: Vera Farminga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman, CCH Pounder, Jimmy Bennett, Margo Martindale, Karel Roden, Aryana Engineer

“Orphan” is another variation on the child from hell story that has fascinated horror audiences for quite some time now. This child isn’t literally from hell; she’s an evil sibling. She has been adopted into the family she terrorizes, and it’s important to note here that the filmmakers make a point to state at the beginning of the film that this movie is not meant as an attack against adoption.

As is often the case when a family opens itself to attack from within, the events follow a family tragedy. The mother has just survived a particularly gruesome stillbirth. But there’s more offspring tragedy to be found within this family. The youngest daughter is a deaf mute. A short time before the pregnancy, the mother almost allowed her to drown in a nearby pond. The mother was drinking.

The adopted child will exploit all these wounds to manipulate the family into thinking about her in different ways. The children will feel threatened by her. The father will see her as an angel. The mother will suspect the worse, but have no evidence to back it up, making her look crazy in light of her personal tragedies. This is just how the child wants it.

There’s a nice twist to this particular bad child storyline that I would never think of revealing here. Needless to say, it makes for an interesting explanation of the child’s behavior toward her new family.

I had a problem with the movie’s score, however. Too often the music cues seem to exist to tell the audience what to think. That’s precisely the purpose of a score, but you’re not supposed to hear the cogs clanking against each other so loudly. The composer could’ve used a lesson in the power of silence in horror. Many scenes would’ve been more effective and much scarier with a minimalist approach to the music.

The Horde (2009) **
Director: Yannick Dahan, Benjamin Rocher
Writers: Arnaud Bordas, Yannick Dahan, Stéphane Moïssakis, Benjamin Rocher
Starring: Claude Perron, Jean-Pierre Martins, Eriq Ebouaney, Aurélien Recoing, Doudou Masta, Antoine Oppenheim

Despite the wonderful reports I had read on this French horror film, “The Horde” is just another zombie movie. It tries to be something different by starting out as a crime picture. A family of cops has lost their patriarch in a gang killing. Four members infiltrate the gang’s headquarters to exact their own justice. Their plans don’t go as well as they’d hoped, but before the worst befalls them, something even worse happens, a zombie horde invades the building.

The movie adds little to the zombie movie clichés. These are fast zombies, which tend to make for far less imaginative filmmaking. Most of the scenes involve a ridiculous amount of violence, blood and gore. It’s not very scary. It hardly tries to be. The filmmakers seem to think that mindless people attacking those with the ability to reason is frightening enough. It’s not.

What perplex me most were the odds the writers put this small group of people up against. There are so many zombies here, and the people are trapped in a high rise. How can they possibly survive? If there’s no chance of survival, there’s no chance at genuine tension. Once the characters were down to pummeling the undead beasts with their bare fists, I had to wonder, “What’s the point? You’re just going to die.”

In closing…

Yes. Sadly, another Horrorfest comes to a close. This was one of my busiest Horrorfests. I watched 46 movies in 32 days. That might be a personal record. I saw horror movies all over the board. There were good ones and terrible ones. There were ones that were scary as hell, and others were funny, some intentionally. And, perhaps the greatest irony is that the best one I saw isn’t even a horror movie. It was a hell of a fun ride this year. Now, what am I going to watch next year?