Monday, August 30, 2010

The Last Exorcism after many

The poster for The Last Exorcism immediately conjures up the iconic images of Linda Blair as the possessed young girl in the classic The Exorcist, but it doesn't promise anything new beyond reminding you of the iconic. This film, "presented" by horror director Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel) has all the obligatory elements you'd expect in a sweet young girl in pajamas possessed by a demon film: The growling, the moving furniture, the vomit, the cursing, and the impressive aerobic flexibility that girls possessed by demons can display.

The film is also another one of those faux documentaries, shot in Panavision doubling as a handy video camera, which begins by introducing us to Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) an opportunistic Marjoe Gortner type who supports his loving wife and son by pretending to be a believer and exploiting fearful fundamentalists by performing fake exorcisms for families who believe their loved ones are possessed. Cotton is perfectly happy making easy cash as a fraud but his structure of non-belief is challenged when he is called upon by a frightened God fearing Louisiana father (Louis Herthum) whose 16 year old daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is showing signs of possession.

Cotton, along with his two person documentary crew, travel to the man's eerie farmhouse where they meet the father's volatile and creepy son (Caleb Landry Jones) who believes the real danger isn't a demon but their strict extremist father. Is this girl really under siege by Satan or has she been driven insane by her dad?

The chaos that ensues is handled in the style of Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity with it's overuse of shaky handheld camera work and endless shots of lens focusing. And of course constant demands from characters to "Shut the camera off!"

To it's credit, certain moments of terror are effectively handled and the film
is very well acted, especially by young Ms. Bell who convincingly conveys physical and emotional anguish by the supernatural. But overall it's amidst a thoroughly derivative and uninspired story that recycles the best from not only The Exorcist but also Rosemary's Baby and Race With The Devil for good measure. Roger Ebert often says it's not what a movie is about but how it's about, but in this case, and after many years of Exorcist ripoffs, it's not really a matter of how but why.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Piranha 3-D: CGI carnality and carnage

*This review contains minor spoilers.

The fish are bigger, this time around in the 3-D semi-remake of the 1978 classic which was produced by Roger Corman and directed by Joe Dante. In this 2010 version, director Alexandre Aja, who is no stranger to remakes since he helmed 2006's The Hills Have Eyes, is the man responsible for this extra dimensional entry, in it's full 3-D glory that proudly directs to the audience everything from beer bottles, severed private parts, boobs, and the piercing eyes and razor sharp teeth of the titular killers.

Shot in beautiful Arizona and set in the fictitious town of Lake Victoria, Piranha 3-D utilizes great looking locations perfect for a horror film. The setting is primed for spring break festivities in which nubile babes and lunkheaded frat boys all congregate to party lakeside and ripen the appetite of the fish below. In the opening scene, special guest star Richard Dreyfuss, presumably reprising his Jaws role as he drunkenly sits alone in a boat fishing while mumbling the lyrics to "Show Me The Way To Go Home", is victim number one as the lake floor opens up to free some prehistoric killer fish more than happy to munch on poor old Matt Hooper.

This casualty comes to the attention of the town sheriff Julie Forester (a miscast Elizabeth Shue) and her deputy (Ving Rhames) who both immediately agree that it's best to close the beach. But of course in any Jaws ripoff, keeping the party animals out of the water is about as easy as swimming away from the rapidly moving piranha.

To make matters worse, Forester's teenage son (Steven R. McQueen) the town nice boy, ditches his duties as babysitter to his little brother and sister in order to take a job escorting an obnoxious pornographer (Jerry O'Connell) and his two hot-to-trot starlets (the very striking Kelly Brook and real life porn star Riley Steele) out to water for a prime location for his lesbo epic. The younger siblings also ditch their post at home and find themselves stranded on a small island after they fail to anchor their canoe.

Piranha 3-D has all the necessary elements of a brainless but fun gore fest. It also has the spirit of the kind of film an 11 year old kid watches at a drive-in yards away with his dad's binoculars. The nudity is extremely abundant and so is the bloody violence, which is executed in some tastelessly wonderful and creative ways. But the movie really lacks the kind of consistent pacing needed for an efficient exploitation movie. No real tension is built and a lot of the attempted scares come too quick and aren't effective enough. The intended comedy is woeful with the exception of another amusing stunt cameo with Christopher Lloyd as a crazed fish store owner who is more than shocked and amazed that two million year old piranha have suddenly appeared in the local lake.

Certain "money shots" of gore and CGI keep the eyes interested at certain points of the movie but they are too few and far between. At a reasonable 89 minutes, Piranha has stretches that become repetitive and lagging. A few days before seeing this, I saw Humanoids From The Deep on Blu-ray, another monster-in-the-water epic from Roger Corman. That film is played pretty seriously but it at least had a consistent pattern and story amidst the nudity and bloodshed. Not that Pirahna 3-D needed to take itself seriously to be a good movie, but I think it spends too much time meddling with the exploitation elements to have any real momentum and long lasting shock value.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A shameless tribute to Emma Stone

Disclaimer: I am not, nor have I ever claimed to be, an objective film critic or journalist. I’m a film geek—fully self proclaimed. The following entry is a gushing piece of fandom but I also try to make a point about contemporary young actresses. OK, here we go...

I have an...

adulation, affection, amorousness, appreciation, ardency, cherishing, crush, enchantment, fondness, infatuation, soft spot, yearning and zeal for a young actress named Emma Stone. The name might not ring a bell but chances are you’ve seen her in such films as Superbad, The House Bunny and Zombieland. Here is an example of a young actress with a spunky sense of humor, personality, intelligence and attitude to compliment her beauty. She has striking eyes, a wonderful speaking voice and a god-damned sexy grin that would make Jack Nicholson blush. Bill Murray has told the press she is very funny and she has somethin'.

She’s a refreshing new addition to movies in the age of Megan Fox running from CGI robots.

Ms. Stone hasn’t made a great film yet but I do believe she will one day. I hope that talented filmmakers like David Gordon Green or Edgar Wright, to give a couple of examples, have her on their radar. She's a casting director's dream.

This September comes the release of Stone’s first lead role in the high school comedy Easy A, a comic variation of The Scarlett Letter in which she plays an unpopular girl who in pretending to take the virginity of the nerds in order to give them some new found cool, gains a reputation as the school floozy. I can only speak about the trailer since I haven’t seen the movie yet. It could go either way: this could be another tired and routine high school movie in which the under appreciated wallflower rises to the occasion and overcomes the cruelty of the evil popular crowd OR Stone’s natural grace and gift as a brilliant comic actress will transcend the genre’s cliches. She certainly has a talented cast opposite her: Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson play her parents.

One of the most tantalizing qualities of Emma Stone is how classical her screen presence and personality is. She seems wise beyond her years and reminds me of the charismatic and witty personality of someone like Katherine Hepburn. If they remade Bringing Up Baby, they should cast Stone.

The missing ingredient in many of today's actresses seems to be a sense of individuality and unique attitude aside from the basic talent of performance. Lindsey Lohan has proven herself as a talented and likable actress in a good movie like Mean Girls, but people are perfectly happy accepting her based on the cliches of the proverbial celebrity train wreck: the scandals mixed in with one note sex appeal. It seems to be a cruel hobby to verbally beat up on an actress in shallow celebrity gossip mags rather than pay attention to what that actress is doing artistically. Stone is a place apart from that because she is focused and smart. There seems to be another adjective I'm looking for to describe her in a singular way but I'm having a hard time finding it...

Winsome? That's a good one.

*Special thanks to

The battle of Scott Pilgrim

Video games, hyper stylized comic book fantasy, hipster attitudes and primitive three cord rock make up the motif of talented director Edgar Wright's new feature Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, based on the popular graphic novels.

Michael Cera, the master of understated geeky awkwardness, is well cast as the titular hero, a Toronto lad, who despite his nerdy appearance, is able to attract cute young girls once they hear the music of his amateur garage band Sex-Ba-Bomb, who are competing in a battle of the bands that consists of only them and a band that seems to flaunt how terrible they are. Scott has been dumped by his latest girlfriend after she has transformed into an arrogant rising rock queen so he rebounds with a naive and cheery high school girl. But he meets the literal girl of his dreams in Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) a sharp tongued punk rock girl with an attitude and a constantly changing hair colour, but basically a sweet center. Once they begin to date, Scott is bombarded by constant duels challenged by her seven evil exes, which include a husky voiced action movie star, a vicious lesbian with quarterback face paint, a himbo vegan, two Asian DJs, and a pretenious young music executive.

This results in late 80s Nintendo inspired video game-fused-into-live action fight set pieces. No explanation or internal logic for the visual mayhem or instant superpower and might of the characters is provided. This is a movie universe in which once you are defeated in battle, you turn into a pile of coins. And since the movie is set in Canada, the remains of the loser are loonies and twonies.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a good natured and energetic comic fantasy that is perhaps too abundant in smart aleck hipsterism, although it does seem to satirize the hipster fashion and attitude in a subtle way. Overall the film really does have an endearing charm. The fight scenes being the center of the film are actually the least interesting aspect as they become way too routine too soon, although they are executed in an expert and rapidly hyperactive visual style resembling something out of Speed Racer and the 60s Batman TV series. The film is really carried by the pithy dialogue and rapid and engaging storytelling. One strong element is how Wright captures Toronto, deep in the winter, as a unique setting, especially in the sparse nighttime scenes in which the kinetic over the top visuals take a break for the scene in which Scott and Ramona click on their first date. The movie also nails how Generation Y make up their homes in tiny one or no bedroom apartments. Scott shares an apartment where as soon you as open the door you see a mattress on the floor that he has to share with his gay roomie (Kieran Culkin). Early in the film, titles appear on screen that inventory everything in the apartment ala the visual satire of Fight Club.

The characters are well drawn and funny and beneath their almost snarky sense of cool are insecure young adults yearning for some self esteem and good old fashioned love. Scott is on a journey that is really an internal battle for his self worth.

Ironically the corny aspects and not the eye candy help Scott Pilgrim work well as a film. Wright's earlier features Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are more clever and inspired but Scott Pilgrim is good fun as a sly visual feast that's amiable and smart.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Expendables prove their worth

Sylvester Stallone's tough and calculated feat of assembling some of the best men action cinema has to offer has paid off in The Expendables, his much hyped and satisfying new movie in which there's more than enough testosterone to fill a 50 foot screen.

The story is simple and direct: a group of loyal mercenaries who have fought long and hard for years are hired to take out an evil south American dictator, who's financed by a sadistic and icy wealthy American (Eric Roberts) who has Stone Cold Steve Austin as his lead henchman. You know Roberts is a villain because he's well dressed, wears sunglasses and has the smirk that corrupt men like to display. He takes his role as the lead heavy with great idiosyncratic relish.

The Expendables are made up of six men: Aging but still agile leader Stallone, Jason Statham as his close buddy whose specialty is knives and sarcastic wit, Jet Li as a martial artist who is the subject of short guy jokes, Terry Crews as man who uses a bazooka to it's fullest capacity, Randy Couture as an ex-wrestler and Dolph Lundgren as a trigger happy sniper whose battle fatigue has made him a serious liability. Stallone has shown here that proper casting and utilizing the best from his individual actors is something he fully understands. Each cast member is given an opportunity to shine. Mickey Rourke has entertaining dramatic moments as an ex-Expendable who now spends time brushing up on Stallone's unfinished tattoos while waxing philosophical about their old days in the midst of devastating violence. Seeing these actors, who are obviously long time friends in real life, share screen time is great fun.

Stallone (who also directed and co wrote the picture, his eighth as a director) also knows how to pair the right guys as adversaries. He exchanges fists and tackles with the much more brawnier Steve Austin in the scene that seriously injured Stallone in real life and nearly shut down the movie. Such standoffs make the fight scenes all the more engaging and unpredictable.

The film runs at a great pace, setting up the plot quickly with no frills. Humor is abundant, especially in the great set up scene in which Stallone, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwartzenegger exchange funny and tongue in cheek dialogue that is crowd pleasing.

If you're a child of 1980s/90s action cinema, then The Expendables is the faithful return to that spirit. Stallone pushes the right buttons and not even use of CGI and green screen, certainly not reminiscent of action films of yore, distract from the overall joy of seeing aged heavyweights do what they do best. They aren't young anymore, but they know from experience.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Greenberg at 41

Obviously no one enjoys turning 41, or even 30 for that matter. Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is already past 40 and stuck in a mid life crisis involving being wistful about his failed past (his band nearly landed a record deal but he put the kibosh on it, citing wanting to avoid "the corporate bullshit" as his reason.) He has settled as a carpenter in New York. One of his past times is writing whiny letters of complaint to American Airlines and Starbucks and even a pet taxi company. He gets a call from his rich brother in LA who needs him to house sit and watch after the family dog while he and his wife and daughters go on vacation to Vietnam. If he needs anything while he's there, the family assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig) is on hand to do errands. Greenberg, who recently has been released from a psychiatric hospital for vague reasons, is bored and lonely once he arrives at his brother's. He has agreed to build them a doghouse but they doubt he'll put much effort into it. The people in his life all agree that he doesn't desire to put much effort into anything. When he reunites with some old friends from his youth, including an ex-girlfriend he still has feelings for (Jennifer Jason Leigh) they all ask him what he's been up to. "I'm trying to do nothing for a while." he honestly answers. "That's brave at our age." Leigh says. He reconnects with his old best friend (Rhys Ifans) a friendly British fellow who looks like he was born to be a rock star but since Greenberg abandoned the band and fled to the east coast, he now fixes computers and is trying to save his troubled marriage to a woman Greenberg despises. Greenberg is a chore to be around, constantly complaining about almost everything. The fact that his pal is patient and understanding of him must be the reason why he doesn't flee.

But the title character isn't the only focus of the story. Florence, the hard working and high strung nanny, is the kind of young woman you'll instantly recognize. We all went to high school or college with a Florence and Gerwig's performance shows real honesty, vulnerability and humanity. This isn't a generic female lead in a romantic drama. We get the sense right away that Florence is a real person with the kind of baggage, emotions and anxieties that many of us face. She's sweet, generous and naive. We see her sing modestly in a nightclub in one scene that resembles Diane Keaton's low key and shy nightclub act in Annie Hall. Greenberg watches her on stage as he grows all the more attracted to her. But she doesn't show any drive or passion to be a singer, she seems to just want someone around.

Of course these two disparate characters try to have sex but it seems more like they're forcing it on each other to go through the motions. He goes down on her and she immediately loses focus. "Was that a train? Did you hear that?" she asks as he's buried between her legs. There's a definite attraction between these two that's marred by the awkward sense of what they should do or say next. Greenberg doesn't treat her with much respect but is always wanting to see her. "Hurt people hurt people" Florence reminds him over the phone after he treated her rudely. At first it seems mysterious why she would be attracted to such as misantrhope, especially one older than her (she's 25). But she recognizes his hostility and cynicism as just a pathetic defense. She also finds his carefree attitude refreshing.

Every word of dialogue and mode of behaviour in this film rings true and seems natural. Co-writer and director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) has infinite empathy for his characters. The film is so well edited and directed and realized. Greenberg is a miserable SOB but for some reason we relate to some of his feelings. No one likes growing old, especially when you constantly reflect on regret and past mistakes but where does that get you when you're constantly throwing your neurosis onto others? In one scene, he gets high with a group of young kids and speechifies about how the generation below him acts fearless and detached. What a more natural way for them to react to the grumpy old man than to giggle at him?