Monday, June 14, 2010

Wave of the Past: Goblit’s Frequency Oscillates Between Family Drama and Sci-Fi Mettle

More like Voltage. Gregory Hoblit’s Frequency is charged with enough drama and sci-fi buzz to see most of the main cast flat-line without being frivolous. No worries, though. Most of them come back. Two of them get wacked twice. One of them stumbles across a loop hole in the time-space continuum that gets him talking to the dead. Charge complete.

Back then, anyway. Luck be a laddie if director Gregory Hoblit’s career hasn’t booked a ride on the Bart Simpson hair-do for the past ten years. Frequency is a spike, a gun-and-badge sci-fi/drama that’s heavy on the drama and light on the sci-fi. Jim Caviezel and Dennis Quaid are the father and son drama duo sporting their “I love yous” and tough-guy tears over an interval of thirty years.

In 1999, Caviezel is John “Chief” Sullivan, the dispassionate New York cop with a chip on his shoulder about the death of his father, Frank (Dennis Quaid), a firefighter and die-hard Mets fan. On the eve of the 30th anniversary of Frank’s death, the discovery of his father’s ham radio prompts John to seek guidance from memories drowned by booze and bygone days. He comes home to be greeted on air by a friendly New York firefighter named Frank. Who is a Mets fan. AND has a six-year-old son named Johnny whom he calls “Chief.”

Think you know where this is going by now, don’t cha?

Yeah, you probably do. In 1969, Dennis Quaid is Frank Sullivan who tunes into his ham radio to find a man named John, who lives at the same address as Frank and knows that this is Frank’s last night on earth. Tomorrow, he will die unless “he goes the other way.”

And he does. In the blink of an eye (literally), John remembers his past as it might have been had his father lived, played ball, had a Mustang. Between a black leather jacket and five o’clock shadow, Caviezel is the agitated, inky anti-hero. He’s the street-smart cop who can catch a killer, but whose relationship is out on the front porch where his girl-friend Sam (played by a weepy but beautiful Melissa Errico) is leaving him. His excuse: it’s not her, it’s him. Sorry dude, but we don’t feel sorry for you.

Until, by saving Frank, John steps on a proverbial butterfly, allowing his mother Julia (Elizabeth Mitchell) to save Jack Shepherd (Shaw Doyle), a two-faced cop with a deadly secret: he’s a serial killer, dubbed the Nightingale, with a fetish for nurses. Meanwhile, in 1999, John makes a daunting discovery. Not only have the Nightingale’s victim’s increased, but staring back at him from the crime scene photos are the bloody images of one Julia Sullivan. Now, father and son must bridge a gap of thirty years to stop a killer before he destroys Frank’s present – and John’s future along with it.

With the investigation taking place between different time periods, the film shifts constantly between past and present. There are no markers, except in the beginning of the film, that signify a change in setting. Yet, the two are like sides of a coin with little or no transition, but doubtless part of the same whole.

Likewise, the chemistry between Caviezel and Quaid is magnetic. The former is the grave and despondent negative, the bad cop who shoots with the good guys, fishing for answers at the bottom of the beer bottle. Quaid, on the other hand, is all positive. He’s the all-American dad from Queens who drops his Rs, rides a motorcycle, and can’t get enough of the great American past-time. Essentially, as the first-rate firefighter playing second-rate cop, he’s a good actor with the wit to play a bad one.

Per contra, Elizabeth Mitchell (found on the big-screen, Lost on ABC) is good all around as the devoted wife and doting mother, winning the hearts of father and son with spoiled bouillabaisse. In the powerhouse of Quaid and Caviezel, Mitchell is no stick-figure in the almost-picture-perfect image of the All-American family.

Neither is Andre Braugher (Men of a Certain Age, The Mist) as Satch DeLeon, the skeptical cop whose arrival at the Sullivan home in one scene is likened to a fiery version of Sidney Poitier’s Vergil Tibbs. Shawn Doyle (Big Love) is underdeveloped as the bad guy, but, with or without the mullet, he looms long enough to darken a couple of doorways, past and present.

In director Gregory Hoblit’s past, Braugher starred in the 1996 box office hit, Primal Fear, starring Richard Gere and Edward Norton (whose performance earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor). Strangely enough, Frequency, one of the highest rated films in Hoblit’s career, received so many rejections from Hollywood’s elite that the prospects of the film’s debut seemed bleak. Sylvester Stallone reportedly turned down the role of Frank Sullivan due to a dispute on wages. What jump-started the film’s production, however, was Caviezel’s decision to abandon the role of Cyclops in 2000s X-Men to play John Sullivan.

While sci-fi buffs will find the film’s edge on fantasy bordering on dull, serious viewers will find one or two things to nit-pick about (the same ones who think mail boxes that send love-letters across time are a perfect example of the corny side of love). Nevertheless, the film oscillates well between drama and sci-fi (neither a day at the precinct nor a night with Kang and Kodos), so tuning in is worthwhile if only for the implausibility.

Frequency (2000)

Friday, May 21, 2010

Disney Takes a Different Route: American Violet Focuses on the Real World Outside of Happily Ever After

Ripe with a nitty-gritty setting illuminated by a chorus of “Hallelujahs,” “Amens,” and “Yo’ Mamas,” American Violet pits the name Disney on the director’s chair on a live action set where the castle is a slew of sun-baked projects in Melody, Texas, the king a crooked district attorney, and the heroine a persevering mother of four on a quest to take down a corrupt federal system fueled by racist sentiment. So, once upon a time . . .

There was Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie), a twenty-four-year old waitress whose main goal in life is to collect enough tips by pouring coffee and serving compliments to old women on their neglected change in hair style to provide for her four young daughters. The film jumpstarts by juggling between Dee’s apartment in the projects (where the greatest transgression is a bowl of unfinished cereal and a busted bottle of peanut butter) to the parking lot of police headquarters where a hundred cops are assembling an arsenal composed of everything but the army tank to launch a raid on the unsuspecting tenants of an African-American complex.

From the start, the good vs. evil motif takes off with a whir. Choppers descend like beasts on the unarmed peasants of Melody and our heroine is tossed in a dungeon (in this case the county jail) on charges of distributing narcotics in a school zone.

But wait, not only is she innocent, but so are the one hundred or so other prisoners, most of whom are forced to accept plea bargains or face trial where the prison uniforms are pre-maid for the expected outcome. Dee isn’t accepting any plea bargains, however, despite encouragement by her mother, Alma (Alfre Woodard), and her defense attorney (Paul David Story), who’d rather see the case settled so he can get back to sipping Manhattans on the other side of the train tracks.

So, what’s a woman to do when the going gets rough?

Sue the district attorney, Calvin Beckett. Michael O’Keefe, in the role of Beckett, is the supreme bad guy, cool as a cucumber with an arrogance the size of Canada that you want to see squeezed to a slimy, obliterated pulp.

And who’s to man the harvest? It’s the Civil War in miniature as North and South come together in a farrago of Texas twang and University lingo, only this time they're fighting on the same side in the form of Tim Blake Nelson and Will Patton as David Cohen, a clean-shaven, court-house ACLU attorney, and Sam Conroy, the gun-toting, ex-narcotics officer turned lawyer who you know is sporting a bowie knife right next to his .44 Magnum.

They are the dynamic duo, the improbable pair with Byron Hill (Malcom Barrett) as their ace in the hole. The African-American attorney comes through like Vergil Tibbs with a figurative slap against the pale, not-so-untouchable cheek of iniquity.

With comic relief like deer in a desert, the film is washed in wave after wave of unremitting gravity in the style of a courthouse drama minus the courthouse where a bunch of guys, in this case big shot lawyers in suspenders, come together like Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cob, and the rest of the cast of Twelve Angry Men. A sprinkling here and there of dramatic dialogue and camera close-ups intensifies the stark pressure of the film. It's in one of these that Anthony Mackie, as paranoid schizophrenic Eddie Porter (whose been bullied into turning confidential informant on his friends and neighbors), reveals just how much seriousness plays a role in this straight-forward procession of fountain pens and legal pads. "I understand the seriousness of this whole situation . . . I understand the seriousness of not being able to sleep good at night 'cause you worried about somebody coming to your house and harming you or your family members. I understand a lot. And I know my life will never be the same."

Neither will Dee’s when she’s pounding the pavement in Beckettville looking for that lone employer who hasn’t been threatened into turning her down. In the scenes when she’s sparring with ex-lover Darrell (Xzibit) over the custody of her children or scraping by with just enough for a Christmas tree, you expect to hear Ray LaMontagne crooning in the background. Nicole Beharie is cozy in the role of Dee, the dark avenger without the Batman get-up and O-so-mighty superman complex. She’s the hammer forging the way for director Tim Disney (grandnephew of Walt) into the real and pensive world outside of happily ever after.

That’s where Regina Kelly, a 24-year-old waitress and mother of four, sued district attorney John Paschell of Hearne, Texas for issuing a “paramilitary” drug sweep that led to the arrest of 27 individuals on felony distribution charges. From the riveting true story, American Violet is no blossom with its dark presentation of racial profiling and arduous drama, but the plot itself is enough to grow on you, making for a worthwhile and cultivating view.

American Violet

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Wag of a Dog’s Tail: Director Lasse Hallström Takes On the True Story of Man’s Best Friend in Hachi: A Dog’s Tale

Good call by Sony Pictures Entertainment. If Hachi: A Dog's Story had been a theatrical instead of a direct-to-video release in the U.S., chances are there would have been a number of angry viewers feeling cheating out of a hard-earned ten bucks. That's to be expected, however, when one is forced to pay to see a film as priceless as this heart-warming family drama by Dear John director Lasse Hallström.

Based on a true story, Hachi is the whimsical tale of a chance encounter between man and man's best friend that transcends into a companionship of profound affection and unflagging loyalty. Richard Gere (who seems to hail from that race of actors who haven't aged for the past twenty years) is Professor Parker Willis who arrives at the train station on a return trip home to find a busted crate and a stray Akita pup wandering the platform. Parker endears himself to the lovable little creature by giving him shelter "just for the night," under the watchful eye of his wary, but sentimental wife Cate, played by Joan Allen. Keeping with the traditional plot of teary-eyed animal dramas, one night turns into week and one week into many as the orphaned canine with the big brown eyes (reminiscent of Puss-in-the-Boots persuasion) is elevated from the ranks of "temporary guest" to "Hachi," Parker's steadfast and faithful companion.

With a plot that's about as complicated as PB sans J, Hachi manages the extraordinary feat of keeping it simple without being stupid or contemptibly sappy. The headline "Dog Loves Man. The Feeling is Mutual" pretty much summarizes the first half of the film, but the second half, "Dog Waits Nine Years for Dead Owner's Return," is the must-see magnet for drama devotees. Hachi and Parker's relationship deepens when Hachi develops a daily ritual of accompanying Parker to the train station in the morning and returning every afternoon to receive his master the moment the train pulls in. Hachi's fidelity makes him a local celebrity and ward of Parker's acquaintances, Jas (Eric Avari), the hot dog vendor, and Carl (Jason Alexander), the cynical station master whose wise-cracks melt like snow in the glance of Hachi's comically indifferent stare.

Out with the tissues, however, when Parker bids Hachi farewell during his morning commute -- and never returns, having passed away during a lecture from cardiac arrest. When a heartbroken Cate (in a subtle, but gravely emotional performance by Allen) moves away and leaves Hachi in the care of her daughter, Andy (Sarah Roemer), Hachi is consumed by depression and a painful longing that leads to a display of unsurpassing loyalty. Every day, for the next nine years, Hachi plants himself in front of the station and waits for the afternoon train to bring his master home.

A standing ovation for the film's best actors (so sorry Richard Gere and Joan Allen), Chico, Layla, and Forrest, who portray Hachi as a pup, a middle-aged tail-wagger, and a grizzled old hound. There's no denying that there's something about animal expression that makes Old Yeller, Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Black Beauty, and Babe household names. Beastly intuition is, after all, what made "The Tortoise and the Hare" a more recognized tale to some readers than "Susannah and the Elders."

Hachi is the anchor. The rest of the cast are links that ascend and drift about until they are out of sight, lost in a cloudy surface, but not necessarily burdensome. Sarah Roemer stars as Andy Willis in this, the second direct-to-dvd release in her career (the first was Asylum, a horror film directed by Final Destination 2 director, David R. Ellis). In 2007, she gained international recognition as the love interest to Shia LaBeouf in the suspense thriller, Disturbia. In Hachi, Willis takes after the scene from the Book of Exodus which is less familiar to some than the "The Dog and the Bone." She is what she is, a supporting actress in a supporting role with no ambition to mount otherwise. As "the new face of Jenny Craig," Jason Alexander's talent as an eclectic actor in film, television, and theatre is put to far better use sparring with Richard Gere (with whom he co-starred in the 1990 romantic comedy, Pretty Woman). (Oh, wait, he's not supposed to be acting in Jenny Craig, right?) Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Mortal Kombat, Memoirs of a Geisha) stars as Professor Ken Fujiyoshi, Parker's friend and colleague who educates him in the ways of the Akita

Hachi is based on the dynamic true story of Hachiko, an Akita belonging to Professor Hidesaburō Ueno of the agricultural department at the University of Tokyo. In May 1925, Ueno died of a cerebral hemorrhage while conducting a lecture. His dog, Hachiko, who had arrived at the Shibuya train station to receive Professor Ueno each day, continued to do so after his death for the next nine years. Today, a bronze statue of Hachiko stands at Shibuya Station in front of the "Hachiko-guci" or "Hachiko Exit," where the dog was known to wait for his master's return. Ultimately, Hachi is a deeply moving portrayal of the universal nature of love and the will of all creatures -- be they man or beast -- to defy all obstacles in the name of friendship, even in the face of death.

Hachi: A Dog's Tale

Friday, May 14, 2010

Review for Origin: Spirits of the Past

With 5,000 barrels of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico a day, you can bet that in East Jesus, Nowhere, on a long, dry stretch of highway, a weary trucker is listening to Michael Stipe sing about, earthquakes, snakes, aeroplanes, and Lenny Bruce. Environmental activists are storming the capitol with slogans like "Wash Our Waters," the IUCN is calculating some adjustments to their Red List from "endangered" to "extinct," and "Post-Apocalyptic" is coming into its own sub-genre in science fiction. That's where Origin: Spirits of the Past, an anime film by director Keiichi Sugiyama, falls into place.

The time: 300 years in the future. The place: dystopian Japan, riddled by chunks of split rock and mountain villages where people descend in garbage cans attached to a pulley system. All water (so difficult to obtain) is practically holy, and the Moon has been reduced to about ten wedges floating in outer space. The story: Agito, a resident of Neutral City, stumbles across a secret cavern containing a virtual, cryogenic pod where Toola, an 18-year-old young woman, has been suspended for the past 300 years. A concerned Agito becomes her protector and takes her back to Neutral City where she befriends Cain, Agito's best friend and self-proclaimed Casanova, and Minka, who sizes her up as worthy competition for Agito's affections.

Unbeknownst to Agito, however, Toola's awakening incites the wrath of the Druids, a clan of forest spirits who interpret Toola's arrival as a threat to their civlization. Grieved by what she deems as the perdition of a once eminent planet, Toola joins forces with Shunack, a colonel of the Ragna Army who reject the approach of Neutral City to co-exist with the Forest and whose main purpose is to reestablish dominance over the natural world. In an effort to convince Toola that the world, as it is, is not an abomination, Agito embarks on a mission to prove that mankind is but the essence of the Forest and the Earth a haven for them both.

Origin: Spirits of the Past is unique for purging wave after wave of grief and desolation so common amongst films of the post-apocalyptic genre. Instead of weeping over the loss of the iPhone (iPhone? Psshhh. We have Androids now) and the staples of the modern world, Origin adopts the philosophy of rebirth. First doctrine: We screwed up. Now where do we go from here? We decided to use the Moon as a home-base for an experiment on plant growth. Risky? Fuggettaboytit . . . until giant mutant plants leapt through outer space to destroy the Earth. Then, to escape the blame of 6.5 billion people being made into spinach (literally), we rounded up a few to be thrown in animated suspension for the next 300 years. Surprise, surprise. A handful of philosopher's in the branch of spilt-milkism decided to move on. Next stop: Neutral City.

Kudos to philosophy, but the flaw that will irk viewers to the brink of boredom is the saturation of the first hour of the film with the never-ending dogma of ashes to ashes and dust to dust. The film lags, save for the last 30 minutes, which are as action-packed and colorful as can be expected of a mediocre plot. If that's not enough to keep the every-day viewer watching, then anime junkies with an affinity for English-dubs will enjoy the stellar performances by heavy-hitters Chris Patton (Black Cat, Trinity Blood) as Agito, Carrie Savage (Aquarion, Rumbling Hearts) as Toola, and R. Bruce Elliot (Case Closed, Hell Girl) as Agito's father, Agashi.

A year after the release of Origin, the Discovery Channel series "My Shocking Story" aired an episode titled "Half Man, Half Tree." Viewers gawked at the amazing true story of Dede Kosawa, a 34-year-old Indonesian man diagnosed with a genetic disorder causing massive tumors to sprout from his hands and feet like the roots of a tree. Kosawa's story raises some penetrating questions. How deep do the roots of mankind and nature go? Is there a point where they intertwine? Perhaps director Keiichi Sugiyama's vision is not a vision after all. Perhaps fantasy is but a beginning and reality a destination that someone had to dream about in the first place.

Origin: Spirits of the Past

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Review for Clash of the Titans

For one of the most anticipated films of the year, Louis Leterrier's remake gears up for a stark drone rather than the residual clash of the 1981 fantasy epic. Thirty years later, Sam Worthington (fresh from the role of Jake Sully in the acclaimed 3-D splash hit, Avatar) is Perseus, the grimy, greasy, saber-wielding demi-god intent on defeating Hades, god of the Underworld, in his plot to destroy man-kind.

Left to drown at birth and rescued by the kindly fisherman, Spyros (Pete Postlethwaite), Perseus grows to manhood unaware that he is a son of Zeus (Liam Neeson), king of the gods. When the death of his adopted parents at the hand of Hades (Ralph Fiennes) draws him into the clash between gods and mortals, Perseus arrives as a lowly fisherman in the kingdom of Argos. There, the boast of the foolish queen, Cassiopeia (Polly Walker), invokes the wrath of Zeus, who permits a vengeful Hades to destroy Argos by unleashing the Kraken, a malevolent beast spawned from the flesh of the Underworld. Lest the princess Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) be sacrificed to appease the gods, Perseus joins the quest to destroy the Kraken and stop Hades from usurping the throne of Olympus.

While original films age like fine wines, it is no phenomenon that gaudy remakes of classic blockbuster hits go stale within a week of their release. The notion that every century must revamp the art of another is often unfounded if not disastrous. Of course, there have been exceptions, like Zack Snyder's 300, adapted from the 1962 epic, The 300 Spartans, and Guess Who, starring Ashton Kutcher and the late Bernie Mac in a unique spin on the 1967 drama, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Clothe the Venus de Milo in Versace and the David in Gambana, however, and chances are there will be a slew of fans protesting the obstruction of bare originality.

Take for example the 1998 remake of Psycho, starring Anne Heche in place of Janet Leigh in the notorious "shower scene," and Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates. The film earned a Golden Raspberry for director Gus van Stans, a giant leap of the wrong kind from the Academy Award-nomination for the 1997 drama, Good Will Hunting. (Van Stans learned his lesson. In 2000, he directed Sean Connery and Rob Brown in the coming-of-age drama, Finding Forrester, which Richard Roeper praised as one of the ten best films of the year).

While director Louis Letterier may not expect any Razzies for this fifth installment to his repertoire, the nephews of Sam Worthington will be left wanting (Worthington dedicated the film to them as a Clash "for their generation.") Contrary to popular consensus, the film's dialogue is far from a primary flaw. At a run-time of 118 minutes, the same as the original film, the remake fails to utilize the plot to the same extent. A lengthy introduction to the hero and a skirmish with artificial scorpions oozing green goop steal from pivotal scenes, like the showdown with the Kraken (who pops up near the end of the film like a giant hemorrhoid in CGI).

Additional boos for bad acting are hardly credible when a majority of the cast appear as holograms decked out in glitter and do little or no acting at all. Here is the greatest contrast from the original film, whose success lay in part with the supporting roles of Maggie Smith (Thetis), Susan Fleetwood (Athena), Claire Bloom (Hera), and Jack Gwillim (Poseidon). Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes make a worthy duo as Zeus and Hades (with Neeson reviving the role originally played by Laurence Olivier). Kudos to Sam Worthington for the expressive portrayal of Perseus (surpassing Harry Hamlin by a milestone) and a deep nod to Gemma Arterton for the novel performance as Io. One star that ought to be complaining, however, is Alexa Davalos, whose talent is severely down-played in the role of Andromeda. In 2009, she starred beside Daniel Craig in the war drama, Defiance, showcasing a knack for theatrical presence and poise. While dangling from a cliff in her undergarments (sadly, the highlight of her small role in Clash), Davalos shows a great deal of poise, but is ill-used to the point of expense.

For Desmond Davis, director of the 1981 version, Clash was a one-hit wonder. Prior to being in the director's chair, he was a camera man whose work behind the lens included the Academy Award-nominated film, Freud (1962), and the Academy-Award winning film, Tom Jones (1963). While Letterier will go on to greater things in the comfort zone of Unleashed and The Incredible Hulk, Clash will remain in the shadows of a much bigger titan, an original that will not be surpassed by the enhancements of 21st century whims.

Clash of the Titans

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Review for Shutter Island

"If all the world were paper, / And all the sea were ink, / And all the trees were bread and cheese, / What would we have to drink?"

Seltzer water (a.k.a. club soda). From the German village of Selters an der Lahn, 200 miles from Duchau, where Edward "Teddy" Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) saw death -- "too many bodies to count . . . too many to imagine." That's all that Teddy, the US Marshal, is willing to imbibe during his stay on Shutter Island, home to the Ashecliff Hospital for the criminally insane. With his partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), Teddy arrives to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando, a manic depressive patient incarcerated for the murder of her three children. Met with unease by the hospital staff and deception by the head psychiatrist, Dr. John Crawley (Ben Kingsley), Teddy suspects that Ashecliff is conducting human experiments, transforming its patients into "ghosts" by conducting lobotomies and other horrific surgical procedures. Teddy himself has his own ghost to confront -- that of his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), who died in a fire set by Andrew Laeddis (Elias Koteas), a demented pyromaniac whom Teddy believes to be the hospital's elusive "67th patient." As the visions of Dolores increase, so does Teddy's obsession with infiltrating the island's secluded lighthouse, which he believes to conceal Ashefield's greatest secret, a shocking revelation that may just turn out to be his own.

For viewers who've seen their share of crazy films (pun intended) Shutter Island fails to hold up to its promise to "keep you guessing." Director Martin Scorsese's golden egg with the perceptible golden yolk is like a cliché plot decked out in beautiful scenery. A nosey-newcomer with a crippled past disembarks in a remote territory and collides with a herd of eerie, menacing inhabitants. Rewind. September, 2006. Nicholas Cage is Detective Edward Malus who arrives on Summerisle in the middle of nowhere and encounters a Druidic order of women intent on human sacrifice (The Wickerman). Rewind. February, 2005. Joshua Leonard (The Blair Witch Project) is Clark Stevens, an intern at Cunningham Hall Mental Facility who goes insane while mingling with the deranged patients of a shady head pychiatrist (Madhouse). Rewind. March, 2004. Johnny Depp is Mort Rainey, an author with writer's block who concocts a murderous alternate personality as a result of marital issues (Secret Window). Common tale. Common end. "Oh my God, they killed Kenny! You bastards!"

Before Gangs of New York (2002), DiCaprio's first film in his working relationship with Martin Scorsese, the role of Jack Dawson in the 1997 blockbuster hit, Titanic, launched his career as the pretty boy of Hollywood. "Leo Mania" took audiences by storm with films like The Man in the Iron Mask (1999) and Catch Me If You Can (2002). DiCaprio's collaboration with Scorsese in the 2004 biography, The Aviator, earned him his second Academy Award nomination (the first was in 1993 for the role of Arnie Grape in What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, starring Johnny Depp). In Shutter Island, DiCaprio delivers a profound performance as Teddy Daniels, whose detachment from his own identity is a fascinating portrayal of Catch-22 psychosis. Ok, so if I deny I'm crazy that means I am, and if I know I'm crazy, that means I'm not all THAT crazy. So . . . where were we? We can at least say this for DiCaprio: the guy is genuine. When he's not being nearly crushed to death by a tree or climbing down a cliff, he's playing the role of the street-smart cop with a conspiracy to uncover. While the audience may know the difference between a toy gun and the real thing, Teddy clearly does not and the bonafide paranoia depicted by DiCaprio is the main catalyst and must-see aspect of the film.

Besides the outstanding performances by Ben Kingsley (Ghandi) and Max von Sydow (The Exorcist), the film's setting, enhanced by the magnificent panorama and scenery of Boston habor and upstate Massachusetts, makes for a supporting character of its own. Settings need not have their share of talking flowers and home trees to be interactive. "As it rose above the graves on the hill / Lonely and spectral and somber and still." Such is the Ashecliff lighthouse, a symbol of duality that parallels Teddy's internal conflict with identity. As Teddy's frantic obsession with the lighthouse intensifies, so do our speculations as to its purpose in the film. Is it the beacon meant to guide him to the truth, or a siren luring him to his destruction?

OR, maybe that's being too dramatic. As God is his witness, Teddy Daniels will never go crazy again! Neither will audiences for this ambiguous film with an acquired taste. Many will see Shutter Island as a confused medley of scenery and introspection. More will endeavor to see the abstract melding of tension and psychological fear. Either way, Shutter Island takes viewers on a one-way trip to nowhere. Sooner or later, they'll be itching for the boat ride back to the mainland, cause the suspense on the island isn't all that it's cracked up to be.

Shutter Island

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Review for The Orphanage

What's a bad horror movie without a few good laughs? "Hey, Lep! F*** you, lucky charms!" Dumbest horror movie quotes of all time? Here's a few that viewers might recall:

1. "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass... and I'm all out of bubblegum." -- They Live (1980)

2. "Soon all of you will be like me... and then who will lock you up in a cellar?" -- The Evil Dead (1981)

3. "Not so fast, we're going to play a little game. It's called: Guess-who-just-called-the-cops-and- reported-your-sorry-mother****ing-ass!" -- Scream (1996)

4. "If Clear was right, that means Nora and Tim are going to be killed by pigeons!" -- Final Destination 2 (2003)

What do these gems of cinematic stupor have to do with this Spanish horror film by newbie director Juan Antonio Bayona? Nada. Gracias a Dios. Working alongside producer Guillermo del Torro (director of the 2007 fantasy thriller, Pan's Labyrinth), Bayona triumphs with this simple, but bizarre tale of a mother's desperate search for her lost child. Laura (Belen Rueda) is the adopted mother of Símon (Roger Princip), a seven-year-old boy diagnosed with HIV. With her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), Laura begins renovations on her child-hood home, a run-down orphanage in the north of Spain where the tranquil sea-side environment is ideal for a facility specializing in the care of disabled children. Odd sounds and doors opening on their own hardly seem strange in a house as old as the caves that shelter their own dark secrets. Following a visit from a dubious social worker, Laura is concerned with Símon's behavior as he becomes obsessed with the children "who can't grow up." Dismissing the invisible tenants as a figment of the imagination, Laura is more disturbed when Símon begins communicating with "Tomás," a young boy whom he says inhabits "a special place" within the orphanage. When Símon vanishes without a trace, Laura is compelled to follow the clues left behind by the spirits of Tomás and the orphan children and uncover a secret from the darkest corner of the past, where there lingers a sinister and terrifying truth.

In the 1960s, censors and the lack of technology fueled what would later be known as the last decade for the subtle age of horror with films such as Psycho, Rosemary's Baby, and Eyes Without a Face taking the big screen by storm. The experimental phase of the slasher-film began with the low-budget "splatter film" that gave Director/Pornographer Herschell Gordon Lewis the opportunity to derail audiences with an invitation to Blood Feast in 1963. Then, with the 1970s, came Hollywood's first stab at guts and gore with the advent of the uncut, gruesome, and fast-paced slasher-films that made Leatherface and Michael Meyers cultural icons. By the 1980s, the genre took to the mainstream with films like Nightmare on Elm Street, Child's Play, The Hitcher, My Bloody Valentine, and Friday the 13th. The deluge was so great that by the 1990s, murder-mayhem left audiences so desensitized that a cleaver here and a loose limb there were likely to earn a few screams and a flick of the eye from hardened viewers. The remedy seemed simple. More blood. More guts. More young women like Alison Lohman with a nosebleed like a hydro-cleaner making lack of circulation to the brain a likely explanation for a slipshod performance in the 2009 thriller, Drag Me to Hell.

Of all the elements of the horror genre, there are the Magnificent Seven, the crème de la crème, the ones that are most often seen and overused. The mark of any good film is one that utilizes all applicable elements in a fashion that is complementary, without a single element being overpowering. The Orphanage is an excellent example of a skillfully constructed plot that builds off the cliché element of the haunted house (1) to engineer a unique and daunting production. Roger Princip delivers an effective performance as Símon, bringing to the forefront the juvenile element (2), which is often manifested in the way of children and their freaky, prophetic drawings. The adolescent conscious has been used to an advantage in other films such as The Others (2001), The Ring (2002), and Hide and Seek (2005). (Moving on to the greatest lines in horror history) "They're hee-ere (Poltergeist, 1982)."

The puerile fascination for the things that go bump in the night is a fitting introduction for the supernatural or unseen element (3). The Orphanage utilizes the power of suggestion with finesse. Suggestion fuels anticipation, the root of fear. An audience enraptured by suspense is always more afraid of what's behind the curtain, rather than what they already know to exist. Footfalls in the dark, a voice in the silence, a light beneath a closed door. Anticipation. "One, two, Freddy's coming for you. Three, four, better lock your door . . ."

After letting in the psychic, that is. "Would you like a cup of tea?" You have dark spirits attached to you. "Cream or sugar?" You must leave this house immediately. "One lump or two?" One. "Nooooooooo!" Viewers may recall the awkward and invasive performance of Mark Friedrichs as the uptight psychic in the 2009 mokumentary, Paranormal Activity. The role of the psychic, the fourth element of the horror genre, is often doomed to divergent supporting roles or uplifted in phenomenal leadings roles for stars like Sissy Spacek (Carrie, 1976), Christopher Walken (The Dead Zone, 1983), Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense, 1999), Cate Blanchett (The Gift, 2000), and Anthony Hopkins (Hearts in Atlantis, 2001). For Geraldine Chaplin, the supporting role of Aurora (the dying psychic who assists Laura in the search for Símon) gives viewers a rare peek at a performance that not only compliments, but enhances the film, combining the juvenile, supernatural, and psychic elements in a tantamount scene that employs psychological fear as a potent scare tactic.

With the leave of the psychic comes the exposure of the tortured soul(s) (5) and the final scene in which the hero/heroine (6) must confront the opposing force with a teeny bit of gore involved (7). Although it plays a decidedly minor role in The Orphanage, the element of gore is an ingredient which seasons well when used in moderation, but becomes dull, repetitious, and over-powering when used to the excess (What?? You're not gunning for Saw XVI???). As the gerent of gore, the tortured soul, Tomás, falls short. But this is not about religious zealots in the corn field or platinum blond aliens and the barbecue grill. Ring, ring. "(Whisper) Seven days." What if our greatest fears were not from the power of evil? What if the power of love was such that the means by which one was willing to defend it were limitless and forged in the darkest recess of our conscience? Such is the course of our heroine, Laura, the bereaved mother whose faith in her son Símon's survival is the anchor for the film's plot. The horror genre has no restraint on cruelty towards sweaty, weepy heroines in a two piece (ala Paris Hilton, House of Wax). Contrarily, Belen Rueda, as Laura, is the picture image of the devoted mother and perseverant heroine. Rueda's vigor emanates on screen in a performance that engages a morbid setting as well as any of the film's small cast and leaves no room for prolonged scenes that prompt viewers to twiddle their thumbs until the next hair-raising moment.

Irrefutably, The Orphanage is a commendable tribute to the horror genre as a prime example of the versatility of fear. A promising start for director Juan Antonio Bayona, this unnerving, but tender film will have viewers cheering for a terrifying journey into the unknown that just might turn out to be more familiar than it seems.

The Orphanage