Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Tall Man

THE TALL MAN (Pascal Laugier, 2012)

Recent years have not treated the mining town of Cold Rock, Washington well in THE TALL MAN.  The area is economically devastated, but the frequent, unsolved disappearances of the town’s children deliver the most significant blows to civic morale. With town and federal law enforcement no closer to solving the mysteries, local legend pins the abductions on The Tall Man, a shadowy presence who emerges from the forest to take the kids.  

By continuing to run the community clinic her husband once oversaw, widow and single mother Julia Denning (Jessica Biel) tries to do all she can for the townsfolk.  She is concerned for the welfare of Jenny (Jodelle Ferland), a mute teen whose sister was impregnated by her mom’s boyfriend, and makes the extra effort to extend kindness to one missing child’s distraught mother.

One night the racket of a radio preacher spouting hellfire and brimstone awakens Julia. Downstairs she discovers that the live-in babysitter Christine (Eve Harlow) has been beaten and tied up.  Then she realizes that her son David (Jakob Davies) is missing. She makes a valiant attempt to chase down the hooded figure in a long coat but is ultimately unable to retrieve her son and passes out in the middle of the road.
THE TALL MAN comes as close as anything in recent years at matching the better monster-of-the-week episodes of THE X-FILES, although here the mystery is approached from the inside rather than through a federal investigation.  (The connection to THE X-FILES also comes, perhaps incidentally, with the series’ Cigarette Smoking Man, William B. Davis, playing a sheriff.)  The secluded Pacific Northwest location and periodic child narration enhance the film’s fable-like tone as a regional cautionary tale. The authority of legend weighs heavily whether humans or supernatural forces are responsible for the missing kids.

Approximately the first half of THE TALL MAN plays out as a conventional suspense film, but writer-director Pascal Laugier has a couple tricks up his sleeves that transform the otherwise familiar notes into something surprising and provocative.  Genre gives Laugier the freedom to delve into a perspective on child welfare that a social issue drama would likely never dare to consider with any seriousness.  Naturally, the example provided herein is taken to an extreme, but the go-for-broke philosophical determination and ambiguous stance on what transpires make for a potent conclusion.

While THE TALL MAN’s success can be attributed to the execution of its twists and subversive core idea, Biel’s performance as a loving and fiercely protective mother amplifies the power of the narrative turns.  Feeling the depth of her character’s sacrifice is the difference between sustained dread and a jump scare.  Both tactics accomplish the task, but the former is more satisfying in the long run.

Grade: B

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


SINISTER (Scott Derrickson, 2012)

True-crime novelist Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) has a habit of getting on the bad side of local law enforcement wherever he goes.  In SINISTER his latest project does little to endear him to the community.  Ellison is researching the case of a girl who went missing after her parents and two siblings were hanged from a tree in their backyard.  In a ghoulish decision, the out-of-town author moves his family into the victims’ home, although his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and two kids are unaware of the house’s recent history.

In the attic Ellison finds a box of 8mm home movies. The labeled cases feature innocuous titles for the films, but when Ellison fires up the projector to watch them, he discovers horrifying documentation of the murders he’s investigating as well as footage of other ritually slaughtered families.  The deeper Ellison sinks into his work, the more he struggles to shake the horrible images he’s witnessed.  Eventually he turns to a starstruck deputy (James Ransone) for assistance in gaining information about the larger story he’s stumbled upon.     

SINISTER functions as an unnerving testament to the power and pull of the moving image.  Ellison obsessively watches the home movies, poring over every frame for clues regarding the location and people involved in the killings.  Although he’s doing a careful reading of the text from an objective distance, he is still susceptible to being affected by what passes before his eyes.  Ellison is not a film critic in that he is not rendering approval or disapproval on the movies’ aesthetic values, but he is practicing the kind of dedicated engagement with the work that marks the cinephile.

Analytic interpretation aside, it’s a scary movie.  Director and co-writer Scott Derrickson mixes in a modicum of jump scares while maintaining an enduring state of uneasiness. The horror doesn’t come from anticipating a supernatural being leaping out of dark corners or seeing graphic violence.  For Ellison and the audience the terror comes in having what’s suggested in the flickering images seared into one’s consciousness. Swaying bodies dangling from a branch and the hint of mutilation are hard to shake from the mind’s eye.  Even when what’s depicted is not especially vivid, the persistence of the visions are.

SINISTER isn’t to be mistaken for a novel entry in the genre.  It owes more than a debt of gratitude to THE SHINING and THE RING, among others, but Derrickson processes the chilling influences into an eerie experience mindful of the significance of projected images watched alone in the dark.

Grade: B

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (Martin McDonagh, 2012)

In SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS screenwriter Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell) is struggling to come up with a script for a film of the same name.  His creative block might be related to the alcoholism that his friend Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) suggests he has.  Then again, Billy can’t exactly be trusted completely.  The temperamental aspiring actor is hellbent on finding some way to collaborate with Marty on the screenplay.  While Billy is a good friend, he doesn’t make the wisest choices.

For instance, Billy is involved in a dog abduction scheme with Hans (Christopher Walken).  Billy takes the adored pets, and Hans returns them to the grateful owners for the reward money.  It looks to be an easy and risk-free method of lining their pockets until they take the beloved Shih Tzu of organized crime boss Charlie (Woody Harrelson). He doesn’t take kindly to news of his dog’s disappearance.  Charlie and his men don’t have to search long before they are chasing Billy, Hans, and a guilty-by-association Marty.
As a mash-up of ADAPTATION and ‘90s Tarantino-inspired films, SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS is either too clever by half or not clever enough to fulfill all of its ambitions.  Like Charlie Kaufman, writer-director Martin McDonagh loads the film over capacity with ideas and structural complexities.  McDonagh zigzags plenty, sometimes to the film’s detriment, but he provides plenty to chew on among the ample laughs and bloodshed.  

On one level the existential comedy is about the process of filmmaking.  On another it’s concerned with what makes a man a man and the social expectations of how machismo is expressed.  Ultimately SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS is most interested in exploring the need for dreams, be they reflected in the movies or offered through religious promises about an afterlife.  Is what we do in our lives meaningless or the basis for the potential earning of some greater reward?  Are we even in control of writing our own life scripts, or is another screenwriter--the Almighty Creator, in fact--determining how the narrative develops?

SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS doesn’t knuckle down and decide how to answer everything tossed out for consideration--how could it?--but even when it feels like little more than intellectual, postmodern spitballing, it satisfies as an exercise in storytelling.  It helps that McDonagh employs a who’s who of character actors to flesh out a rogue’s gallery worthy of living up to the film’s title.  As a foil to Farrell’s straight man, Rockwell is amusingly unhinged as a wild card of a friend.  Walken brings gravitas and soul to an eccentric man who knows all too well the tension between faith and despair in the face of the seemingly random.  Harrelson is a fearsome and humorous study in the film’s clash between violent and loving impulses.  Tom Waits and Harry Dean Stanton are plugged into the lineup for good measure.  SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS doesn’t reach the high bar McDonagh sets for it, yet he distributes a good number of pleasures with the film’s wit, contemplative offerings, and unpredictable nature.  

Grade: B

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Taken 2

TAKEN 2 (Olivier Megaton, 2012)

After rescuing his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) from human traffickers in TAKEN, former CIA operative Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) dedicates himself to being there for her, whether she needs him or not, in TAKEN 2.  Given what they went through in Europe, he’s justified in playing the role of the overprotective father.  These days he’s overseeing her driving lessons and, at the drop of a hat, tracking down Kim to her boyfriend’s place despite having been unaware that she’s dating anyone.  

Bryan’s heroics in the previous film appear to have improved his relationship with ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen), who’s now on the verge of a split from her wealthy husband.  When a tearful Lenore tells Bryan about her crumbling marriage, he asks her and Kim to join him for some rest and relaxation in Istanbul after he’s done with a job there.  

They accept his invitation, but Albanian toughs interrupt the Mills family vacation.  Led by Murad Krasniqi (Rade Serbedzija), they seek revenge on Bryan for killing their kin, friends, and colleagues when he rescued Kim in Paris.  Before Bryan and Lenore are abducted, he calls his daughter with instructions for how she can get to safety and help her mom and dad escape their captors.

Like the TV series 24, the attraction of TAKEN and its sequel are heroes who can brush aside bad guys with ruthless efficiency and display crack improvisational skills to wiggle out of any number of jams.  24 and the TAKEN films envision a hostile and untrustworthy caricature of a world that is best protected by a paternal figure with government connections and extralegal means at his disposal.  Both Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer and Neeson’s Bryan even have daughters named Kim.  The disappointment of TAKEN 2 is how long it takes to wind up and deliver Neeson in all his throat-punching and arm-breaking glory.  Enough with all the family theatrics already.  Let’s see Neeson bring the pain.
Maybe the unexpectedness of watching Neeson be so merciless has worn off because TAKEN 2 plays as though it’s going through the motions when he finally gets to take on his enemies.  Director Olivier Megaton competently captures the action and fight scenes, but the results bear little difference from dozens of similar films producer and co-screenwriter Luc Besson’s production company has churned out.  Neeson is a charismatic actor who cuts an imposing figure, but this repeat lacks the vitality and novelty.

In its best scenes the sequel briefly reverses Bryan and Kim’s roles. The security expert becomes someone who needs to be found, and the daughter turns into the rescuer, even if she’s merely following her dad’s detailed guidance.  The clever, if dubious, method of helping to pinpoint one’s unknown location with a hidden cell phone, a city map, a marker, a shoelace, and a few grenades brings a pleasing MACGYVER-like touch, although the achievement is also due to some of the least attentive abductors ever.

The problem in making Bryan the abducted is that TAKEN 2 lacks the immediacy and dramatic stakes of the rampage he goes on in TAKEN to save his daughter.  Obviously Bryan is more than capable of taking care of himself.  His ex-wife needs to be saved this time around, but her plight does not seem urgent for any significant stretches.  With lowered concerns, TAKEN 2 is content to play out as a familiar and lesser version of its predecessor.

Grade: C-

Friday, October 12, 2012

What to Expect When You're Expecting


The prenatal comedy WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU’RE EXPECTING provides a snapshot of contemporary anxieties about imminent parenthood, but it may be more worthwhile as a document for future pop culture scholars to use to understand what was trendy in 2012.  Reality TV shows in the forms of a weight loss program and a celebrity dance competition, Auto-Tuned YouTube videos, and food trucks play prominent roles in the loosely intersecting plots of five pairs expecting babies.  Whether the film is analyzed for the attitudes and fears particular to this time for parents-to-be or what captured the mainstream’s attention, there are more valuable details found in the margins than in the dull and fragmented story.

The sets of expectant parents cover the spectrum.  Celebrity fitness trainer Jules Baxter (Cameron Diaz) thinks she can keep up her rigorous schedule while pregnant and doesn’t need to consider the input of Evan (Matthew Morrison), her partner in the relationship and on the TV dance contest where they met.  Holly (Jennifer Lopez) stresses over impressing adoption officials so she and her husband Alex (Rodrigo Santoro) can get a child from Ethiopia while he is wary of the major changes that may be forthcoming in their lives.  Alex is encouraged to hang out with a dad’s group that is intended to allay his fears but may reinforce them instead.

Food truck operator Rosie (Anna Kendrick) is upset  to discover that she got pregnant from a one night stand with Marco (Chace Crawford), a rival cook she knows from high school.  He commits to being there for her, but they struggle with a relationship started out of a sense of duty.  Baby store owner and children’s book author Wendy Cooper (Elizabeth Banks) and husband Gary (Ben Falcone) have been trying hard to get pregnant and are elated when it happens, but the nine months aren’t as smooth as they would hope.  It’s all the more aggravating for them because Gary’s young stepmother Skyler (Brooklyn Decker) and his dad Ramsey (Dennis Quaid) are regularly one-upping them with the ease of her pregnancy.
Based on a pregnancy guide, WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU’RE EXPECTING ticks off boxes on the checklists of things to be aware of as parents anticipate the arrival of their babies.  The four stories set in Atlanta and single one based in Los Angeles reflect the diversity of experiences but play out as perfunctorily told, mostly meaninglessly connected tales.  All but one of the subplots come straight off the romantic comedy assembly line, reducing this major life event to strings of wacky hijinks and dodged conversations by people who seem as though they’d be challenged bringing a puppy into their homes, let alone a newborn child.  The scenarios didn’t need the gravity of educational role playing, just more emotional heft, especially in Kendrick and Crawford’s unusually featherweight section, and less broadly contrived nonsense.

The one thread that feels the most honest centers on Banks learning that being armed with information and the best laid plans doesn’t mean everything will happen easily or perfectly.  Her scenes, particularly a conference presentation, touch upon the range of emotions and complexity of the challenges during pregnancy that the rest of the film tends to gloss over.  

Grade: D