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

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Review for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

In 1964, film-goers gawked, then cheered for what would become the most celebrated unofficial word in the English language -- supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. A feat to say, much less spell, it was the precursor to the fine four-fendered friend that took the screen in 1968 with Dick Van Dyke as Caractacus Potts, the absent-minded inventor who restores a ramshackle motor car to its former glory -- and beyond. After a failed attempt at marketing his latest invention (toot sweets) to local business magnet, Lord Scrumptious (James Robertson Justice), a crestfallen Caractacus surprises his children, Jeremy and Jemima (Adrian Hall and Heather Ripley), by bringing home the dilapidated contraption, which he rebuilds and names "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" to the children's delight. While on a picnic with Lord Scrumptious' beautiful daughter, Truly, in tow, Caractacus entertains the children with a tale that takes Chitty on the adventure of a lifetime to escape the evil clutches of Baron Bomburst. When the baron sends his duo of bungling spies to steal Chitty to the kingdom of Vulgaria, a case of mistaken identity leads to the kidnapping of Grandpa Potts (Lionel Jeffries), whom Caractus and his companions set out to rescue with the aid of the magical motor car with a mind of its own. On arriving in Vulgaria (where children are imprisoned by the decree of the Baroness Bomburst), fantasy blends with reality as Caractacus and Truly lead a mission of incredible (and humorous) proportions that will leave viewers cheering for this comical and enchanting film.

Based on the novel by Ian Fleming (author of the James Bond series), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang had the good fortune of falling into the hands of acclaimed children's author, Roald Dahl, who became screen-writer for the film after the publication of his novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 1964. Also on the writing crew were Academy Award-winning composers Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman, who had previously written scores for The Parent Trap (1961), The Sword and the Stone (1963), and Mary Poppins (1964). Following a successful working relationship with the Sherman brothers, Dick van Dyke took up the role of Caractacus Potts after his enthusiastic portrayal of Bert the chimney sweep launched his career as a comedy actor on the big screen. Van Dyke's talent as a singer and dancer were apposite for the film's memorable musical numbers, which include the title song, the burlesque performance of "Me Ol' Bamboo," and the hauntingly beautiful "Hushabye Mountain." (As a trivia side-note, Van Dyke's dance numbers were put on hold for six weeks after he tore a leg muscle during the filming of the song "Toot Sweets"). In her second-to-last film role, theatre-actress Sally Ann Howes (who was then famous for her portrayal of Eliza Doolittle in London's West End) charmed adults and children alike with the colorful (and cheerfully robotic) performance of "Doll On a Music Box." Despite praise in the UK and other parts of Europe, the film received scathing reviews from Hollywood critics for its "forgettable score." Although undeserved, this was not surprising, since Hollywood was then preoccupied with the premiers of 2001: A Space Odssey, Night of the Living Dead, Funny Girl, and Rosemary's Baby. As the years passed, however, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang rose to prominence (typical of films unappreciated in their time) and was adapted into a West End production in 2002 starring Michael Ball (The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserbles) as Caractacus Potts.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is one of several films that cater to the young viewer's unique fascination with dubious subjects (from elephants to nannies) taking flight. The film's special effects (another topic of scorn in Hollywood) are decidedly poor for the decade, resulting in many of the scenes involving the titular character's extraordinary transformations (from a floatation device to a flying machine) to come off as cheesy. Should viewers choose to look upon the solidity of the film as the heart-warming and profound essence of imagination, however, they will be pleased with the intense feeling of nostalgia that is the main captivating quality of the film. The chemistry between Van Dyke and Howes is preeminent, a credit to Howes' ability to conform to the presence and musical style of her costars. Although the film's poor reviews precipitated Howes' departure from the film industry, she nevertheless went on to star in the lead roles of the London productions of The Sound of Music and The King and I. Amongst the other must-see factors are the comical performances of Lionel Jeffries (who starred as Grandpa Potts despite being a year younger than Dick Van Dyke) and Gert Frobë, whose portrayal of Baron Bomburst is likened to that of a plus-sized ruler in a hallucinogenic version of Candy Land. Primarily, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a delightful testimony to the power of the imagination, which in simplicity is the basis for the inventor in us all and makes this endearing family-flick a classic that shall remain "truly scrumptious" for decades to come.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Review for Whip It

Drew Barrymore's directorial stint in this breakneck, routine comedy-drama falls just short of the finish line for a second-place tumble onto the back shelf of Hollywood's forgettable sports dramas. Academy Award-nominee Ellen Page (Juno, An American Crime) is Bliss Cavender, a 17-year-old misfit from Bodeen, Texas, where fish are jumping and the cotton is high and the greatest past-time is getting one's picture taken for the hall of fame at the local Oink Joint. Fed-up with the role of beauty queen in her mother Claire's off-beat fantasy of America's sweetheart, Bliss finds her true calling in the fast-paced world of roller derby, where, when the going gets tough, the tough get rolling. For the Hurl Scouts, a rough-and-tumble gang of tattoo-bearing, hard-drinking dames, second-place (or thirteenth, as far they're concerned) is the first winner as long as there's a beer and a hot tub to barf in. Encouraged by their coach, Razor (Andrew Wilson), and a die-hard determination to break even with their nemesis, the Holy Rollers, the Hurl Scouts, led by Maggie Mayhem, Smashley Simpson, Bloody Holly, and Rosa Sparks (Kristen Wiig, Drew Barrymore, Zoe Bell, and Eve), up their game with Bliss as their new front-runner, "Babe Ruthless." A few victories and a budding romance with an indie-rock musician lead Bliss to believe that her true home is on the rink. When her new-found hobby threatens her relationship with her best friend, Pash, and her parents, Bliss finds herself competing on a much bigger course where the main obstacle is to reestablish what is most important to her in becoming her own hero.

At twenty-three (and with an Oscar nomination to fall back on for the next few years), Ellen Page has proven to be quite comfortable in the role of the coming-of-age teen that had Judy Garland on the war path while filming Meet Me in St. Louis at the age of twenty-two. While audiences may rejoice in the young playing the young (as opposed to waiting twenty-odd years to go all out with Sly Stallone, botox, and Rambo IV), Page's socially awkward performance as Bliss Cavender is a Death-Valley tumble from the role of Juno MacGuff that earned the Oscar-nomination for Best Actress back in 2007. Due to a plot that is undeniably cliche (not to mention downright corny in Barrymore's hands), audiences ought not to be too hard on Page. Rather, it is the film's lack of originality and presentation (from a not-so-likable underdog to a outright unlikeable pack) that ranks it below more gratifying films like Ice Princess, She's the Man, and Bend it Like Beckham. Even the unwept and unsung world of roller derby adds no unique feel to the film, which pales in comparison to the oft-heard-of sports dramas that hail to a broader fanbase. Nevertheless, viewers with an exceedingly sensitive (or sympathetic) funnybone may find Drew Barrymore sporting a bloody nose and a IQ of 50 to be vastly entertaining. Aside from this, Whip It is just another mundane coming-of-age comedy-drama that audiences would do better to pass up - even if it is for Rambo IV.

Whit It