Thursday, September 22, 2011

Don't Be Afraid of The Dark


"Don't Be Afraid of The Dark"

Or rather, be very afraid of the dark as that's when the little creatures will come to get you. Based on the television movie of the same name, Producer/writer Guillermo del Toro retells the tale in his own vision. The suspense is ramped up but the stakes remain the same... the life of a little girl and her family.

Guy Pearce plays the father of little Sally, who has come to live with him and his girlfriend, Kim played by Katie Holmes. Of course, they are refurbishing a huge gothic home with a dark secret in it's past. Sally is played by newcomer, Bailee Madison and she is talented beyond her years. The script calls for her to react to some pretty terrible things and she handles the role very well. Mr. Del Toro has a appreciation for dark fairy tales featuring strong willed little girls. There are moments of tribute to his earlier work, "Pan's Labyrinth" but that remains a superior film. This remake is stuffed with horror movie clich├ęs.

The director, Troy Nixey tries to slowly build suspense and using the "Spielberg technique" doesn't completely reveal his monsters until well into the film. Unfltunately his slow build is pretty boring. The lighting and music do create a suspenseful atmosphere but all the bumps in the night are pretty stock elements. Overall, this is a hohum thriller with a few frightful moments but it is quickly disappearing from theaters to make room for the "big guns" of fall. If you rent it on DVD, watch it with the lights out. It will help.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Drive


From the ads and trailer, you go in expecting a certain kind of movie but "Drive" turns this genre on it's head and takes you by surprise. Unfortunately I was not pleased by the "surprise". What starts out very promising quickly becomes a bad imitation of director Michael Mann's style.

Ironic for a film called Drive, it remains stuck in first gear for most of the film. There are a total of three car chases (and the last, while effective, is sloppy in it's execution). The rest of the film is filled with endless head shots of Ryan Gosling and Cary Mulligan. Scenes with no dialogue go on forever to the pulsing beat of the electronica soundtrack. Mr. Gosling's character is a total mystery (we don't even learn his name). All we know is that he is an excellent driver and has a psychotic temper when pushed. Mr. Gosling seems an odd choice for this kind of film but his cool demeanor works well for the most part. It's the ultra violent moments that just don't make sense.

The bloodshed and violent acts are so over the top, they are almost funny and after being lulled into a daze by the poor direction by Nicholas Winding Reyn, they are a jolt to the system when they occur. This was probably Mr. Winding Refn's intent to keep the audience awake.

The film co-stars Bryan Cranston, as Shannon, Mr. Gosling's boss and a far more interesting character than "The Driver" and Albert Brooks as a menacing crime lord, who has a new career playing against type. Ron Perlman plays a extremely stereotypical goon that we're either supposed to take seriously or laugh at the role as a parody. Christina Hendricks (from TV's Mad Men) has a "blink and you miss her" cameo but it's pretty memorable in it's own way. And then we come back to Cary Mulligan who sleepwalks her way through the film as Mr. Gosling's motivation.

Maybe I missed the joke and the whole film is a parody. That would explain the outbursts of laughter from the audience throughout the film. This drive goes nowhere. It's just long, boring and violent.

Contagion


Didn't we all see this movie already? The last time around it was called "Outbreak" and starred Dustin Hoffman. Before that it was called "The Andromeda Strain" starring James Olsen. Now we have an all-star cast including Matt Damon, Lawrence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jude Law. I guess every few years we need a killer virus movie to shake us all up. And the thing is...it does.

Scarier than any slasher film, "Contagion" will have you squirming in your seats and reaching for your hand sanitizer. Is it enjoyable and entertaining? Not really considering how close we are to really experiencing an outbreak of this proportion. Is it compelling? Absolutely. The acting is first rate and the story is so relatable, you'll run to the restroom as soon as it's over to wash your hands.

Director Steven Soderbergh is adept at juggling a large cast and breaking them down into inter-locking sub-plots that still manage to maintain the bigger picture. In particular, Matt Damon as a widower fighting to protect what's left of his family and Jude Law's conspiracy blogger are two standout stories.

In the end, this is a public service announcement masquerading as film entertainment and it's worth your time, if only to educate you on proper sanitation protocols.

Monday, September 05, 2011

The Help


Terrific performances from a wonderful ensemble cast are the heart and soul of this dramatic setting at the dawn of the civil rights movement in Jackson Mississippi. When Skeeter Phelan, played by Emma Stone, comes home to Jackson and decides to write the stories of all the African-American "help", it ignites a flame in the town that will never die.

Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are the first maids that come forward to tell their stories to Skeeter and these two women are incredibly powerful, each in their own way. Representing the white upper-class is Hilly Holbrook, played convincingly by Bryce Dallas Howard, who's social class and upbringing blind her to her racial bigotry. While Ms. Davis and Ms. Spencer are the heart of the film, you can't ignore the work of Ms. Stone (in her most mature role to date) who is both the anchor and catalyst for everything going on around her.

Allison Janney plays Skeeter's mother, raised to think one way but willing to change before it's too late. She is so well cast and has some great scenes of her own. Also co-starring is Jessica Chastain, who just continues to amaze with every role and Sissy Spacek, who also has some wonderful scenes as Hilly's mother.

"The Help" should expect at least six or more Oscar nominations and the biggest challenge will be who to nominate in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress roles. Every woman in the film so completely inhabits their character that the audience can't help but feel the emotions coming off the screen. I didn't read the book but I have to believe that the film brings these people to life in a perfect portrayal. Credit must be given to Tate Taylor who wrote the screenplay and directed the film.

"The Help" is cleaning up at the box-office and deservingly so.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Debt


Based on the trailers that seemed to be running forever, this film delivers on it's promise. While it may strain credibility at times, it's still a pretty good espionage thriller with more than one good twist. Cutting back and forth in time, director John Madden, introduces characters and plot points like puzzle pieces that eventually come together to form a sobering picture.

The film stars Helene Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds as retired Mossad agents, who 30 years ago undertook a mission to capture a Nazi war criminal posing as a doctor in East Berlin. In the flashbacks of 60's East Berlin, the agents are played by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington. Ms. Chastain has seemingly come out of nowhere to be the "it" girl of the moment. She is currently in three films with at least three more before year end. The good news is rather than be overexposed, she is showing terrific range and maturity in this variety of roles and she should be enjoying a strong career for years to come. As young Rachel Singer in "The Debt", she is terrific.

The rest of the cast all do credible work even when the plot steers into the improbable and there is a fair amount of suspense to keep the audience engaged. I was reminded at times of films like "Marathon Man" and "The Boys From Brazil" (both higher quality but sharing similar themes). If you are looking for something with a little more substance at the end of the summer, this will be a good start before the avalanche of "Oscar" bait that begins in the next few weeks.