Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Innkeepers

THE INNKEEPERS (Ti West, 2011)

The Yankee Pedlar Inn, first opened in 1891, prepares to shutter its doors for good after one final weekend of accommodating guests in THE INNKEEPERS.   For these last days Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), the two remaining employees, have moved in to keep each other company while working twelve-hour shifts at the front desk and hunting for ghosts rumored to walk the hotel’s halls.  With a mother and child and washed up actress Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis) the only ones checked in, they have plenty of time to search for the supernatural.

Luke maintains a primitive website about The Yankee Pedlar Inn, which is purported to be one of the most haunted hotels in New England.  Its notorious reputation stems from a story long ago of Madeline O’Malley, a guest who hung herself after her fiancé stood her up on her wedding day.  Wishing to avoid bad publicity, the owners hid her body in the wood cellar for three days.  The scandal eventually came to light, forcing the sale and long-term closure of the property and leading to talk of Madeline haunting the inn.

Although not up to the high standard of writer-director Ti West’s previous film THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, THE INNKEEPERS is another often chilling exercise in building mood and atmosphere.  In contrast to many of his contemporaries, West favors something that might be dubbed slow horror, which relies on spinning spooky tales and employing long takes and wide shots.  West isn’t concerned so much with what he shows to raise the tension but instead builds suggestibility.  The pleasure is found in the anticipation of something awful happening, not being jarred by specters popping out of unsuspected places.  Compared to films with more aggressive jolt delivery systems, West wrings greater suspense out of otherwise banal scenes of Claire inspecting a noise coming from the cellar and sitting in an empty room while listening over headphones to the shotgun microphone connected to a tape recorder. 
When THE INNKEEPERS does include jump moments, they’re usually played for laughs.  It is an uncommonly funny film within the framework of traditional horror, but it feels appropriate considering the lighthearted tone foregrounded in Claire and Luke’s complementary work relationship and easygoing friendship.  Paxton and Healy exhibit pleasing chemistry as their characters try to pass the uneventful hours on the job. While Claire is the one sensed to be in the most danger, Paxton turns in a delightful comedic performance rooted in her posture and overall comportment.  Her awkwardness witnessed in interactions with guests and hilariously dragging trash to the dumpster is what makes her so endearing and the most vulnerable to whatever malevolent forces may be present.

At the core of THE INNKEEPERS is the question of if it is preferable to be haunted by ghosts or the prospect of a dead end future.  Both fears are potentially magnified within one’s mind rather than being tangible threats and are likely to become overwhelming if fixated on.  The damage these worries cause are proportional to how suggestible one is to accepting them as fate.  It’s easy to be frightened of the invisible or interpret random events as menacing if uncertainty is automatically assigned negative attributes.  

Reflecting on the thematic thrust of THE INNKEEPERS helps to compensate for a generally lackluster ending that satisfies more as a metaphor than a conclusion to the story.  The apprehension that sends a surge of nervous energy through the lengthy build-up dissipates when an answer, no matter how terrible it might be, can’t meet expectations.  That minor disappointment aside, West again shows that he’s one of the more exciting filmmakers working in the genre.

Grade: B

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The House of the Devil


College sophomore Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) has tired of living in the dorm with a slovenly, inconsiderate roommate and decides to look for her own place.  She finds a perfect apartment but needs to round up the funds to secure it.  On campus she spots a flyer requesting a babysitter and arranges to take the job on the night of a lunar eclipse.

Soon after arriving at the stately house deep in the countryside Samantha learns that she’s been brought there under false pretenses.  Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan), an exceedingly polite older man, explains that it is not a child she is to oversee but an elderly woman who will probably stay holed up in her room.  He apologizes for misrepresenting the situation and makes up for it by agreeing to pay $400 for four hours of work.  

Samantha is aware that something is amiss in this arrangement, but the money will more than cover her first month’s rent.  How can she turn that down?  Her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) pleads for her to leave, as surely this offer is too good to be true, but Samantha is steadfast and settles in as her friend and the couple who hired her depart.

Media reports and urban legends of Satanism and Satanic ritual abuse were widespread in the 1980s.  That’s one of the reasons why writer-director Ti West has chosen that decade as the setting for THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL.  The film opens with presumably spurious numbers for the high percentage of people who believed that devil worship and Satanic rituals were a problem at the time.  Whether or not Samantha puts stock in such reports, they’re likely to be in the back of her mind while alone in a creepy house.  Having been less than upfront about the job, Mr. Ulman suggests as much when making an oblique reference to those rumors and for his prospective hire’s need to be careful while he tries to put Samantha at ease.
The time period is also important because West is interested in exploring that era’s horror film style.  Although the camerawork and longer takes are not techniques exclusive to ‘80s fright fests--HALLOWEEN and ROSEMARY’S BABY seem like reference points too--a distinctly retro approach marks THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL as quite different from its contemporaries.  First and foremost, West masterfully sustains suspense as Samantha explores the home and gradually becomes worried that she is in danger.  The unsettling tone lingers heavily in the air and is all the more potent because the payoff is withheld until very late.

Donahue is effective as a stressed out coed who makes a regrettable but understandable decision.  The casualness of her performance, most visible as she dances around the house listening to The Fixx, grounds the film and keeps it stabilized even when what transpires becomes more unhinged from a typical night of caretaking. The restraint in performance extends to the others as well.  Gerwig’s amusing turn as the more rebellious friend turned voice of reason reflects how someone might respond in these circumstances than how a horror movie character would behave.  Like a spider spinning a trap, Noonan’s meek and eerie portrayal chills because of how he effortlessly he captures his prey.

THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL mimics the aesthetics of ‘80s horror films, but this is no mere case of imitative homage.  Laden with dread and executed with a musician’s sense of timing, THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is better than a substantial number of the films it resembles.

Grade: A-

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Dictator

THE DICTATOR (Larry Charles, 2012)

With the tyrannical leader in THE DICTATOR pushing for his country to develop a nuclear energy program, the fictional North African nation Wadiya could be the region’s next target of United Nations sanctions and military intervention.  Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen) insists that such technology would be employed for peaceful purposes.  His giddy denial that nuclear power would absolutely, positively not be used to bomb his hated enemy Israel hardly eases international concerns.

Aladeen travels to New York City to address the UN but soon finds himself on the outside looking in.  Aladeen’s trusted adviser Tamir (Ben Kingsley) arranges for his abduction and murder.  While the magnificently bearded ruler manages to escape from his captor, Aladeen emerges from a literal close shave that renders him unrecognizable as the Wadiyan dictator.  With Aladeen missing and presumed dead, Tamir replaces him with a simpleton look-alike who promises the world community that he will draft a constitution and make Wadiya a democracy.  Tamir will then be free to sell the drilling rights to the country’s highly coveted oil fields, which Aladeen has refused to do.  

When Aladeen makes a scene at a protest, Zoey (Anna Faris) mistakes him for a fellow activist and a political dissident.  Zoey clothes the bedraggled monarch and offers him a job at her Brooklyn co-op.  He initially rejects her offer but accepts after learning that her business is catering the Wadiyan constitution signing ceremony that he hopes to disrupt.  

Baron Cohen’s composite despot changes the language as he sees fit, surrounds himself with female virgin guards, and fills his home and nation with artwork bearing his venerated likeness.  The buffoonish Aladeen is a poke in the eyes of past and present world leaders who abuse power and their people.  There’s nothing funny about this dictator’s real life counterparts, but seeing them mocked provides a touch of catharsis, even if the satire is kind of tame.
Aladeen’s hair trigger orders to execute those who anger him provides the film with one of its best running jokes.  Unknown to him, those he condemns to die are shuttled out of the country, a fact he discovers upon entering an anti-Aladeen restaurant in New York’s Little Wadiya.  Among those who have escaped his wrath are Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), the former head of his nuclear program now working as an Apple Genius, and a cow who earned his ire.  (The cow ends up served as a steak on a plate, but at least it didn’t meet its end as a political victim, right?)

THE DICTATOR is funniest when at its most outrageous.  A decapitated head used as a puppet is a grotesque highlight.  Aladeen’s rampant racist and sexist declarations, as when he delivers a baby and asks for a trash can upon seeing it’s a girl, bring the edge to Baron Cohen’s style, which seeks to risk, if not welcome, the chance to offend viewers.  He’s most likely to bruise sensibilities when Aladeen draws equivalence between dictatorship and current American politicians and the financially powerful.  One of the most pointed jokes is presented less furiously but is no less sharp.  Aladeen pays for countless celebrities to come to Wadiya and sleep with him, which brings to mind those entertainers who have been in the proverbial beds with oppressive leaders who give them sizable checks.   

Although a fair number of jokes hit their marks, THE DICTATOR tends to be as comedically erratic as Aladeen’s decision-making.  Baron Cohen, his three credited co-screenwriters, and director Larry Charles take a scattershot approach that produces several successes but leads to an often choppy result.  The burgeoning love story between Aladeen and Zoey offers equal opportunity insults by taking progressives down a few pegs but otherwise is an ill fit with the dark humor.  The danger for Baron Cohen is having made his name as a confrontational comedian but delivering something that, while occasionally provocative, feels too conventional.    

Grade: C+

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Dark Shadows

DARK SHADOWS (Tim Burton, 2012)

Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), the dashing heir to the family fishing empire, picks the wrong woman to spurn in DARK SHADOWS.  Angelique (Eva Green), a servant at the Collins manor, reacts badly to his decision to break off their romance.  As a witch, she’s more than capable of getting her revenge.  She causes the deaths of Barnabas’ parents and his beloved Josette (Bella Heathcote).  As if that isn’t punishment enough, Angelique turns him into a vampire and then sees to it that he is locked in a buried coffin.

Almost two hundred years later--1972, to be exact--Barnabas is accidentally freed.  He returns to the coastal town of Collinsport, Maine and finds it to be much different than what he knew.  The changes aren’t just technological and societal.  The family estate is in disrepair and inhabited by eight strangers, as is apt to happen when one is gone for nearly two centuries.  Now calling Collinwood Manor home are matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz), Elizabeth’s brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) and his son David (Gulliver McGrath), the boy’s psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), groundskeeper Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley), maid Mrs. Johnson (Ray Shirley), and newly arrived governess Victoria Winters (Heathcote), who bears a marked resemblance to the love of Barnabas’ lifetime.

Elizabeth is the only one who knows Barnabas’ secrets, so in exchange for being permitted to stay at Collinwood, he promises not to indulge his vampiric impulses on anyone living there.  Barnabas then settles in to restore the family business to its former glory only to realize that the competition is headed by the very woman who cursed him so many years ago.  She’s going by the name Angel now and is a pillar of the community.  Worst of all, her desire to call Barnabas hers has not abated.

From 1966 to 1971 the soap opera DARK SHADOWS ran for more than 1200 episodes.  With so much material to choose from and only 113 minutes to fill, director Tim Burton’s film is best described as being based on the TV show rather than a remake of it, although screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith does his best to shove as much plot in as possible.  DARK SHADOWS has a lot to establish and does so with clarity, but it feels like half of the film is prologue.  (Ironically, the opening scenes in the mid-1700s are efficient in setting up Barnabas and his eternal dilemma.)  Once everything is finally laid out, the narrative struggles to gain momentum.  
DARK SHADOWS gets stuck in neutral because of the uncertainty as to what kind of a film it wants to be.  In keeping with its soap opera roots, it overflows with doomed romanticism and heightened drama.  Long stretches pass in which events and relationships are treated as being deadly serious.  Not enough is invested in these characters, though, to feel the big emotional scale DARK SHADOWS wishes to pull off.

Complicating matters is that the film is also intended to be a comedy.  Burton appears more at ease in acknowledging the ridiculous elements of the story and simply having fun with the supernatural twists and turns.  Depp handles his role with composure and sufficient restraint, making him a humorously refined but still lethal bloodsucker.  Sinking her teeth into the villain role, Green charges her scenes with Depp with sex, danger, and playfulness that the rest of the film resists.  For all of the good these two leads do, the jokes in DARK SHADOWS mostly consist of easy targets related to Barnabas’ puzzlement by modernity.  Director and screenwriter settle for arriving at the mildly amusing when the obvious destination is camp territory.  

The production and art design and Colleen Atwood’s costumes help Burton create a familiar but no less dazzling gloomy world.  Visual effects are put to spectacular use when Green’s skin looks like cracked eggshell.  Burton has lavished a lot of attention on the surface and it shows.  No matter how good it looks, DARK SHADOWS is missing a soul and a heart despite no lack of wanting them.     

Grade: C-

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Five-Year Engagement

THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT (Nicholas Stoller, 2012)

Tom Solomon (Jason Segel) and Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt) are ready to get married, but life circumstances have a way of delaying their plans in THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT. The San Francisco-residing lovebirds put their matrimonial designs on hold when she gets accepted into the University of Michigan’s graduate school but not the one at nearby University of California, Berkeley.  Facing imminent relocation to Ann Arbor for two years, they don’t have the time to pull together a wedding.

Tom quits his job as a sous chef so they can remain together.  He supports Violet pursuing her career in psychology and academia, although the sacrifice stings a bit more when it is followed with the knowledge that he was about to receive the chance to run a restaurant.  While he’s disappointed to miss out on the opportunity, he expects not to have any problems finding work in Michigan.

The Midwest proves not to be as hospitable as he imagined it, though.  Cooking jobs, especially at the compensation rate to which he’s accustomed, are virtually nonexistent.  He lands employment at a wildly popular delicatessen, but making sandwiches isn’t what Tom envisioned for himself.  The cold, snowy winters aren’t much to his liking either.  While Violet thrives, Tom descends into a funk that deepens when it appears their stay in Ann Arbor will be longer than anticipated.

The title of THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT incorrectly suggests that the tension between Tom and Violet stems from the obstructions keeping them from the altar.  While their families and friends are perturbed by the seemingly perpetual postponements, these two act unaffected by their inability to become legally joined.  They behave as a committed couple and present themselves to others as such.  All they lack is the paperwork.

No, the widening rift in the relationship comedy comes from Tom feeling Violet may not fully appreciate what he is forgoing for her benefit while she is frustrated that he won’t communicate sufficiently with her about his dissatisfaction.  THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT is most successful when focusing on the two of them together fending off the pressures others would put on their decisions.  The more it drifts from Tom and Violet’s front, whether it’s united or not, the more it becomes sidetracked with subplots and characters of little consequence.  Some of these scenic diversions, like Violet’s professor Winton (Rhys Ifans) trying to explain the proper pronunciation of his dog’s name, add amusing observational humor to the mix.  Director Nicholas Stoller, who co-wrote the screenplay with Segel, includes a preponderance of not unwelcome but unnecessary scenes that the background begins to squeeze out the main story.

Inevitably Tom and Violet’s journey as a couple reaches a critical juncture where they must determine how or if to clear a path out of the thicket blocking them.  To this point THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT has fancied itself more levelheaded and emotionally realistic than similar films and deserves such a designation, but then it loses all of the accrued goodwill. The characters seem halfhearted in following the prescribed plot mechanics, yet they behave as the genre says they must.  That’s not to say the people in these films aren’t permitted to make dumb or bad decisions, just that they need to develop organically.  THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT eventually rallies from these big missteps, but the damage can’t quite be repaired in full.  That goes double for much of the unfunny and lazy vulgarity decorating the film.

Segel and Blunt come across believably as a loving couple struggling to balance challenges in their long-range plans and usually trying their best to resolve them.  As Tom’s best friend Alex and Violet’s sister Suzie, Chris Pratt and Alison Brie provide a funny counterexample.  Pratt, who’s in the habit of stealing scenes on TV’s PARKS AND RECREATION, provokes laughter with his belief in saying what he thinks no matter how stupid or insensitive it might sounds.  Alex represents an exaggerated standard of how to talk in a relationship, but his directness isn’t entirely a bad idea.  Brie reacts to his idiocy with a mixture of affection and disapproval that shows these two have figured out how to talk.  (She also shares a standout scene with Blunt in which they conduct a serious conversation in Elmo and Cookie Monster voices.)

Like life, THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT can be messy and irrational.  The shame is that the film doesn’t need to be those things quite to the degrees that they are.

Grade: C+

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Miss Bala

MISS BALA (Gerardo Naranjo, 2011)

Through no fault of her own Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) gets mixed up in the Mexican drug war in MISS BALA.  The young woman from the outskirts of Tijuana is in the city to sign up for the Miss Baja California pageant.  Later that night she and her friend Suzu (Lakshmi Picazo) are at a club when members of a criminal organization slip in and shoot up the place.

Laura escapes but loses track of Suzu in the melee.  While looking for her the next day, Laura again crosses paths with the drug gang known as La Estrella and its fearsome leader Lino Valdez (Noe Fernandez).  Rather than kill her, Lino forces Laura to participate in their illegal activities.

Statistics shown before the end credits claim more than 36,000 lives have been lost in Mexico during the drug war from 2006 to 2011 and that drug trafficking generates $25 billion annually there.  Director and co-writer Gerardo Naranjo’s film bristles with anger at the toll this situation is having upon the country and its ordinary citizens, and MISS BALA manifests the fury in its blunt dramatization of real life.  This impassioned political work aims to persuade through on-the-ground reporting about the rampant corruption and straw men in the war on drugs rather than with sloganeering.

The depicted events could easily be the basis for a slick Hollywood action film.  Instead Naranjo numbs sensation to make his points about the drug war’s damage to Mexico, turning MISS BALA into a thriller from the dissociative first person perspective.  Laura endures as though she’s having an out of body experience in a waking nightmare.  The mildly disorienting sound design emphasizes that everything she sees, does, and has done to her seems unreal and yet her experiences are horrifyingly all too real.  
Naranjo’s use of negative space in constructing the chaotic border town is MISS BALA’s greatest achievement.  Visually the unsettledness of a Tijuana ruled by criminals is conveyed with key information glimpsed in reflections, suggested beyond Laura’s view, and dropped into exceptionally composed long, unbroken shots.  The back of Laura’s head often faces the camera, yet even with a wide frame the world feels like it’s closing in on her.

Laura’s motivations aren’t always readable in Sigman’s performance, but the protagonist’s opinions are less essential than the one quality the actress ferociously exhibits.  Sigman invests Laura with a survival instinct that supersedes whatever objections she might possess as an unwilling participant in the gang’s dealings.  MISS BALA is loosely based on beauty pageant winner Laura Zúñiga, who was linked to a drug cartel and arrested and detained along with other members in 2008.  Just like beauty queens represent their countries, the film’s version of Laura stands in for the Mexican population.  Sigman is no mere symbol of those put-upon bystanders, though, but a specific reminder of the suffering innocents. 

MISS BALA delivers many aesthetic thrills, including the club ambush and a shootout under an overpass, but Naranjo is using the form to call attention to the harsh truth that the battles on view do not only exist in a movie.  It also proves to be a riveting way of telling the story and transmitting the message most effectively. 

Grade: B

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Damsels in Distress

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS (Whit Stillman, 2011)

To refer to a film’s olfactory properties is ordinarily associated with expressing one’s displeasure, but to do so in regard to DAMSELS IN DISTRESS is to praise this cinematic aromatherapy’s mood-lifting qualities.  Its light, sweet notes provide a soothing atmosphere for writer-director Whit Stillman’s return after a thirteen-year absence.

DAMSELS’ soap-sniffing protagonist Violet (Greta Gerwig) would certainly approve of scent-related praise.  Violet and her friends Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) are, depending who one asks, Seven Oaks University’s selfless suicide prevention center volunteers or the campus do-gooders.  These dutiful young women are vigilant in offering assistance in the form of coffee, donuts, and tap dancing to those in need, be they clinically depressed or merely malodorous.

At the beginning of a new academic year the trio pulls sophomore transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) into their fold.  Violet, Rose, and Heather invite her to become their roommate and to join in their charitable work.  Lily is pleased to gain such nice and altruistic friends so quickly, although it soon becomes apparent that they require help as much as anyone.

British-accented Rose is quick to loose sharp, stinging assessments of the untoward motivations she assigns to the school’s male population.  Dimwitted Heather is hopelessly naïve.  Then there’s Violet, whose exceptional verbal dexterity and magnanimity mask a deep pathology.  She touts the virtues of dating losers, a renewable resource at Seven Oaks, and envisions her greatest possible achievement as creating an international dance craze.  Violet can be quite convincing in her convictions--never let it be said that she does not practice what she preaches--but cracks appear in her carefully maintained surface upon discovering doofus Roman-letter fraternity boyfriend Frank (Ryan Metcalf) cheating on her.

Stillman densely packs DAMSELS IN DISTRESS with trademark witticisms that dissect social constructs and challenge conventional wisdom.  Who else but the filmmaker who strived to rehabilitate the image of disco would have Violet vigorously defend topics as wide-ranging as the received wisdom in clichés and the civil, if not fundamental, gesture that is a stranger sending drinks to a table, let alone make the cases so eloquently?  Stillman likes to play with language and savor the art of conversation, yet he never leaves the impression that his zingers are merely tricks of forensics.  For his characters choosing the proper words can be as much of a moral act as the customs discussed.  Stillman’s polite, heady humor is given to wry smiles and low chuckles than explosive laughter, but the modesty of the jokes makes them no less funny than those more insistent in eliciting the desired reaction.

While the dialogue easily identifies DAMSELS IN DISTRESS as Stillman’s work, the broad humor and vaguely surreal tone mark it as something of a departure.  Undergrads often try on different personas because they’ve been afforded the freedom and because they’re searching to find what suits them.  Whether Stillman is likewise dabbling for the sake of dabbling or seeking to expand his repertoire, his inimitably refined take on the boisterous college comedy pays off not only with highbrow repartee but also with sight gags and lowbrow quips.  His facility with cultivated humor is to be expected.  That mentions of Catharism and lexical tiptoeing also manifest in what is probably the crudest joke in his oeuvre is not.

Gerwig delights to no end playing a character who is able to incorporate her peculiarities into a framework of propriety, service, piety, and delusion that is strangely functional for Violet and her circle.  She handles the dialogue with aplomb, rattling off Violet’s belief system as if reciting from a catechism in a conversational voice while bending the ideology as inconsistencies with her behavior are pointed out.  Gerwig’s guileless performance endears even as it reveals the disorder behind her naked sincerity.

Late in DAMSELS IN DISTRESS Violet says, “I adore optimism when it’s completely absurd, perhaps especially then.”  For all of the confused and stupid people inhabiting his film--everyone, in other words--the generosity of spirit Stillman displays for them is paramount.  Flawed though they are, their enthusiasm and resilience in the face of setbacks reflect their inherent decency and worthiness.  To be happy or optimistic is a choice, maybe one in opposition to the evidence.  DAMSELS IN DISTRESS sets its targets on lightness and hope and transfers those attributes to those receptive to the message.  Life may not be an extended dance scene from a 1930s Hollywood musical, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to find a partner, kick up one’s heels, and treat it as though it were?

Grade: A