Archive for the ‘Movies (S)’ Category

set-up

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE SET-UP is a genre film with style, a sports noir, based on a poem of all things, and directed by the versatile Robert Wise.  Though shot in film noir tradition with film noir themes of steep odds and tragic heroism, THE SET-UP is primarily a sterling example of a boxing picture, and it is a widely-acknowledged inspiration for Martin Scorsese while shooting RAGING BULL.  (I guarantee you that Quentin Tarantino saw it too, when considering Bruce Willis’ storyline in PULP FICTION.)

 

 

In this movie, Robert Ryan plays Stoker, an over-the-hill boxer who discovers that he’s expected to take a dive by a powerful gangster.  He’s a loser several times over, but he’s not about to lose for lack of trying – but there’s a price to standing up against the underworld.  That price is apparent through the pummeling Ryan takes throughout the movie.  Ryan was seldom better cast – imposing enough to be credible as a professional boxer, but wearing his heart on his sleeve, lacking of the drive and the viciousness of the most successful of punch-drunk champions. The soul is in his eyes; the fists only secondary implements by contrast. An essential Robert Ryan performance for longtime fans and soon-to-be fans of one of the most fascinating, thoughtful, and under-acknowledged of old-Hollywood film stars.

 

– Jon Abrams.

 

Please read this excellent essay on the film over at Screen Slate today.

 

THE SET-UP plays at 5pm this evening at the IFC Center in New York City. It isn’t on Blu-Ray yet but you can still find it on the DVD format.

 

 

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Sorcerer (1977)

 

 

Over at Daily Grindhouse I’ve been doing a weekly column on the newest DVD and Blu-Ray releases, which I enjoy doing because as random movies find their way to the newer formats, I get the chance to reflect on movies which I otherwise never would have written about. SORCERER isn’t like that — SORCERER is a movie I would have wanted to write about as soon as this beautiful new edition hit the shelves. The movie has been on DVD before, but it has always deserved better treatment than it’s gotten. Filmmaker William Friedkin has been working for months and years to get this under-seen great film out in the best possible picture quality. Now it’s ready to be seen, and in fact Film Forum has been showing it all weekend. There’s still time to get to the last couple shows today! Quick! You can come back and read this later! It’s playing through June 5th, so you still have the week.

 

The following is what I wrote for the weekly column. I hope to expound upon SORCERER further as soon as I get to sit down with the new Blu-Ray that just showed up at my door!

 

SORCERER

 

Out of the many picks of the week this week, this is the most underlined and bold-faced. The 1970s were arguably the artistically important decade in American film history, the place in time where Old Hollywood and New Hollywood intersected, featuring the last films of many of the canonical directors and the first films of their inheritors. Blockbusters and ‘blaxploitation’ were born in the 1970s, and the boundaries of propriety and expression were tested by the introduction of nudity and profanity and the integration of politics and unprecedented moral ambiguity. The horror film hit new hellish heights throughout the decade. Maybe the most important trend was the personalization of mainstream films. Filmmakers such as Clint Eastwood, John Carpenter, Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, George Romero, Jack Hill, Francis Ford Coppola, Wes Craven, Steven Spielberg, Sylvester Stallone, John Landis, George Lucas, David Cronenberg, and Jim Henson emerged as resonant voices whose films were invariably distinctive. Individuality was present in the films of the Old Hollywood, of course, but you had to squint a little more to catch it back then. On the other hand, there was no mistaking the sui generis nature of the intensely-felt films of the 1970s. And William Friedkin’s SORCERER is a film that deserves the hallowed reputation of the great films from that era.

 

SORCERER

 

For one thing, Friedkin had already made two immediately influential films that decade, 1971′sTHE FRENCH CONNECTION and 1973′s THE EXORCIST. Both were unlikely hits but both became sensations, and their respective effects on the crime genre and the horror genre, respectively, have lasted to this day. SORCERER, however, is a film that seemed lost to time. Released on June 24th, 1977, it was a small ship washed away in the tidal wave of STAR WARS, released on May 25th of that year. SORCERER was a small-scale, intense, and very dark film in comparison to STAR WARS, but then it would be that in comparison to very many films. Filmed in part in France and Israel and largely in Latin America, SORCERER is a bleak thriller in the mode of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 classic THE WAGES OF FEAR. Friedkin hired Walon Green, screenwriter of Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH, to craft the script, which concerned four international rogues hired to drive trucks carrying nitroglycerin through the dense jungles of South America, an extraordinarily dangerous job which pits them against the elements, the landscape, and each other.

 

SORCERER

 

The cast features all-American Roy Scheider (Chief Brody from JAWS), France’s Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal from Spain, and Moroccan actor Amidou. By all accounts the shoot was remarkably arduous — in his autobiography Friedkin invokes Werner Herzog’s film FITZCARRALDO, a film from five years later more famously focused on madmen on mad missions in the jungle — and there were many factors which threw audiences, including the lack of an A-list star (Steve McQueen was sought for Scheider’s part), its then-unusual electronic soundtrack from Tangerine Dream, and the confusion around its title (which comes from a 1967 Miles Davis album that inspired Friedkin). The financial failure of SORCERER‘s release, along with a highly misguided critical response, basically derailed Friedkin’s career as an A-list director. He never stopped making films — and several great ones! — but these days he is rarely mentioned alongside the big-name auteurs who were his contemporaries.

 

SORCERER

 

That is an oversight. 2007′s BUG and 2012′s KILLER JOE proved that William Friedkin remains as vital and bold a filmmaker as any, be it the 1970s or the decade we are in today. Few filmmakers of any generation have made even one film as good as Friedkin’s handful of stone classics. His work is uncommonly vibrant, vigorous, and challenging. SORCERER is no exception. In fact, it is the ultimate example of what this terrific director can do. For years SORCERER has been relatively hard to see, but thanks to Friedkin’s  hard-won efforts, a restored, remastered edition of the film is finally out on Blu-Ray today from Warner Brothers. Buy it sight unseen if need be.

 

SORCERER

 

 

@jonnyabomb

 

 

 

 

The Spectacular Now (2013)

Stories about alcoholism, if they’re being honest, have no heroes and no villains.  There are protagonists, and occasionally antagonists, but the antagonists are peripheral, really.  Authentic stories about alcoholism must ultimately focus around the protagonists and their loved ones.  A protagonist of such a story can be a hero at heart, but he’s living with an addiction, so his actions are rarely heroic.  They’re tainted, polluted.  It’s the addiction that is the story’s villain, and it’s an inescapable enemy.  It’s always there, with no safe haven to be found.

Addiction turns a hero into his own worst villain.  An addiction narrative is a suspense thriller, where the lead character is in a life-or-death battle to prevent himself from destroying his own life, and the lives of his friends and family.  Any other dramatic conflict, and there will be many, still remains strictly secondary in comparison.  Every tale of addiction is different, but every one of them can have only two potential endings.  The protagonist manages to stop, and that is no easy thing; or the protagonist dies.  Period.  Well, there may be a third option, of sorts.  It’s possible the story ends with the protagonist still alive, and embracing his addiction, but understand that this is a kind of death.  It’s a death of the spirit.

In the most generalized spoiler ever, let’s say that THE SPECTACULAR NOW, in its final moments, rejects the death of the spirit.  This is a movie with life in it.

SUTTER

And please take no offense at the fact that the opening paragraphs emphasized the male conjugation — they were written that way because this particular addiction story happens to be about a “him.”  Miles Teller plays the main character, Sutter Keely, an extroverted young man whose profound problems sneak up on the movie.  By leading with talk of addiction, this review of THE SPECTACULAR NOW robs the film of some of its shock — the movie was sold as a lyrical, regional romance, which it is, but primarily it’s the story of an addict, which isn’t immediately apparent as things play at the outset.  Sutter is outgoing and likable, with a stunning girlfriend (the luminous Brie Larson), a successful older sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, endearing and deep), and a single mother who cares about him in her seemingly brusque way (Jennifer Jason Leigh, in a rope-a-dope of a performance). Miles Teller has a kind of Cusack-meets-Belushi soulfulness and affability which keeps you on his side, even as Sutter’s screw-ups multiply as the story continues.  His philosophy, as captured in the movie’s love-it-or-sneer-at-it title, is to live in the “now” as opposed to so many people who fixate on the pain of the past and the worries of the future.  It’s an agreeable philosophy, but it’s flawed.  

SUTTER

Sutter is a high school senior.  He’s at that exact moment in life where people are most concerned with both their pasts and their futures at once.  High school seniors are at an emotional precipice — with yearbooks and parties, they celebrate and reflect upon the end of childhood, while on their computers sit college applications, resumes, and job applications, the entry tickets to the chaotic carnival of adulthood.  Sutter’s fixation on the “now” seems at first like a way of framing the present in a positive light, of appreciating the moment, but in fact it’s a dodge.  Sutter wants to prolong a moment that by nature must pass.

DRIVING

It starts with the soda cup.  The first clue to how substantial a problem Sutter has is the soda cup.  He’s never without it, in the car, at his job — practiced and committed drinkers know what’s in the cup.  He’s mixing booze in there, using the soda cup as a front to hide his crutch.  The acceleration is rapid.  After a whirlwind night of partying, Sutter wakes up one morning on a classmate’s lawn.  She’s Aimee Finecky, a sweetheart to whom Sutter never gave a second thought at school.  Next to Cassidy, his girlfriend, Aimee would be considered plain.  There’s a warmth and a decency to Aimee, though, as there is to Sutter, when he’s conscious.  Cassidy has been distancing herself (she sees the warning signs before he does) so Sutter starts spending more time with the attentive Aimee.  If this were the John Hughes movie one may have had reason to expect, the lawn incident would be played for broad comedy, a meet-cute.  Here it’s perfectly pitched, humorous but subtle, and the kids quickly move on from it.  Aimee, an introvert by nature, isn’t used to spending time with Sutter, an indefatigable extrovert.  She’s entranced.  She’s co-dependent.  She’s in trouble.  By the time she or the audience realize that, we’re all already in too deep with Sutter.

SUTTER + AIMEE

THE SPECTACULAR NOW has an impact you don’t see coming, even if you do know what’s in that cup right away.  Not to oversell such a delicate and genuine film, but it’s one of the best American movies to be released in 2013.   Credit is due all around.  Tim Tharp wrote the novel upon which the movie was based.  Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ((500) DAYS OF SUMMER) wrote the adaptation for screen.  James Ponsoldt (SMASHED) directed the movie.  Jess Hall was the cinematographer.  Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, as the two main characters, play their roles with uncommon maturity and sophistication.  They are surrounded by an extremely talented supporting cast, including the aforementioned Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as the strong women in Sutter’s life.  Kyle Chandler appears later in the film, as a character who only existed as rumor beforehand, and he makes the maximum impact in a few scenes with a perfect, knowing performance.  Comedian Bob Odenkirk, in a relatively small role as Sutter’s boss who recognizes a problem employee and tries to hang onto him as long as possible, is positively heart-breaking.  This is a movie where Bob Odenkirk, a monster talent who’s only ever made me laugh, broke my heart.  Wow.  This is a special kind of movie.

THE SPECTACULAR NOW

Making a good movie is a collaborative effort, done by small armies of craftsmen who have varying degrees of personal investment in the art.  Whether all were deeply moved to make it or only some, THE SPECTACULAR NOW feels eminently personal.  It’s told with quiet, relaxed authority.  There is a keenly-observed realness going on, just as there was in James Ponsoldt’s previous film, 2012’s SMASHED, and in his debut feature, 2006’s OFF THE BLACK.  Those films, though, were about young adults and middle-aged people grappling with addiction.  As terrific an achievement as SMASHED in particular was, Ponsoldt has found more unique, tender material in THE SPECTACULAR NOW.  The novelty of this plot is that it’s been de-aged.  Movies about drunks are almost always cast with characters gone to seed, nearing the ends of their lives rather than finding them at the very start. There’s still plenty of hope for Sutter. He caught this thing early.  Millions have been less fortunate. THE SPECTACULAR NOW ends on a question mark. Where will Sutter end up? Nothing is certain. But there’s reason to hope. This movie gives you hope.

Visit me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

Smashed (2012)

In retrospect, it kills me that I didn’t manage to see SMASHED anytime last year.  It absolutely would have clinched for my year-end top ten.  I even know which movie it would have supplanted:  FLIGHT, a movie which covers similar territory.

Like FLIGHT, SMASHED deals with the topic of alcoholism with unusual potency and attention to detail, with an astounding central performance and with harrowing scenes of hitting bottom and going even lower.

Unlike FLIGHT, SMASHED has an unsubtle, lovely soundtrack that doesn’t threaten to undermine everything else good about the movie.

NO + MEW

Director James Ponsoldt, between SMASHED and this year’s THE SPECTACULAR NOW, has cornered the market on low-fi and true pictures that deal with addiction in surprising, disarming, and sneakily affecting ways.  He wrote SMASHED with Susan Burke, and assembled a tremendous cast that includes never-fail ringers like Aaron Paul (“Jesse Pinkman” on Breaking Bad), Octavia Spencer (FRUITVALE STATION), Bree Turner, Mary Kay Place, Megan Mullally, and Nick Offerman.

NO

Those last two, by the way, I am now officially willing to follow to the ends of the earth, due to the fact that everything they do together (Parks & Recreation, Axe Cop, THE KINGS OF SUMMER) is so resolutely charming.  Her role, as a sympathetic school principal dealing with a young teacher who lies and comes to work drunk, is probably smaller than his, as a fellow teacher who helps that troubled co-worker find her way into a support network but has his own weird issues going on.   But both are indelible in this film, as is the entire cast.  Everyone in the movie is funny, sad, and disarming.

MEW

But SMASHED is Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s victory most of all.  Already beloved by genre fans for her roles in horror and action movies, she proves definitively that she is one of the most under-utilized great actresses of her generation with her role as Kate, a schoolteacher who decides to get sober despite the fact that her husband and main running buddy (Aaron Paul’s Charlie) isn’t ultimately willing to do the same.  Winstead’s performance isn’t showy or grandiose, which is a sacrifice.  You don’t get fancy awards for underplaying.  Instead, she plays it like a real person.  Kate is a person you could know.  She’s a person you quickly come to care about.  She’s a person you worry about.  She’s a person you can hope for.  That’s more noble.  That’s true acting; playing a part with honesty, without underlining everything for the cheap seats.

MEW + AP

I feel so fondly towards this small, sweet, special movie, but I’m not sure I could express myself anywhere near as well as the late, great Roger Ebert did in his review.  Please seek it out – it’s one of the most beautiful pieces he ever wrote, and it will convince you, if I haven’t, that SMASHED is a film well worth the attention you give it.

@jonnyabomb

MEW + OS

State of Play (2009)

 

 

 

Here’s one of my first online reviews, from April 17th, 2009.  I wanted to post it here for my own archiving and also because it made me curious to look at this movie again.  Haven’t thought about it in four years and I seemed to like it at the time!

 

 

STATE OF PLAY (2009)

 

 

It seems to have slipped into theaters with the stealth of a ninja late to class, but State Of Play is now playing and it’s worth your time.

 

 

State Of Play is the new political thriller which has been adapted from a BBC miniseries of the same name. It has been condensed and Americanized, and without having seen the original source material it can be looked at on its own terms. This version of the story focuses on a veteran D.C. journalist who investigates a scandal involving an ambitious young politician, who happens to have been his college roommate and best friend.

 

 

This is a flawed movie that is made more than viable by several suspenseful sequences, solid performances, world-class cinematography, and timely social concerns. It’s encouraging to see a big studio movie that grapples with such modern issues as war profiteering and the privatization of the military, the extinction of traditional media alongside the rise of the internet, corruption in government and flexible definitions of morality and heroism. Of course, a two-hour film can begin to buckle under the weight of so many valuable considerations, since any one of them could merit their own individual film, but State Of Play manages to remain compelling through its entire running time.

 

 

The script is credited to Matthew Carnahan (The Kingdom), Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass). The director is Kevin Macdonald, who also made One Day In September (a truly necessary documentary) and The Last King Of Scotland (a movie which has even more to offer than Forest Whitaker’s phenomenal performance). The movie was filmed by the great cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros8 Mile25th HourBrokeback Mountain21 GramsBabel). So the pedigree is strong, even before one gets to the cast list.

 

 

STATE OF PLAY (2009)

 

 

Russell Crowe plays the beleaguered journalist, Cal McAffrey. It seems to be an unpopular opinion recently, but here it is: Crowe continues to be one of the best actors working in the world. No matter what time period a story is set in, Crowe is never less than entirely authentic, and that is certainly the case here, as – rare for Russell – he plays a contemporary character. Crowe convinces as a sharp, reliable, instinctive field reporter whose unshowy, even ramshackle methods are considered prehistoric in the era of TMZ “reporting,”

 

 

Crowe’s character initially competes with, berates, then mentors and befriends, the young blogger whose very existence at the paper signals the end of his way of working. She is played by Rachel McAdams, with just the right mixture of arrogance, excitability, naivete, and potential. The role of the veteran editor with the difficult job of teaming these two is played by Helen Mirren, who convincingly plays the pressure of managing accurate reporting, making relentless deadlines, and the need to sell papers all at once.

 

 

STATE OF PLAY (2009)

 

 

Robin Wright Penn wins all sympathies as the congressman’s wife, caught in the middle of a huge public ordeal involving her husband, and a more private one with their old friend the reporter. And the congressman himself? Well, he’s portrayed by the unfairly maligned Ben Affleck, who admirably conveys the image and the reality of an idealistic and genuinely altruistic public servant who may or may not be as prone to corruption as the rest of us. If there’s a problem with the casting, and there probably is, it’s that Affleck and Crowe, while perfectly cast respectively, are impossible to buy as contemporaries. Affleck comes off as even younger than he actually is, and Crowe comes off as older. Wright Penn is stuck somewhere in the middle.

 

 

Ultimately, that casting issue hurts the movie. It’s ironic, because again, the two lead actors are actually fantastic in their roles – they’re just somehow not fantastic together. It’s kind of like drinking your orange juice right after brushing your teeth – surely two good things, but things that shouldn’t happen too close to each other.

 

 

STATE OF PLAY (2009)

 

 

Still, State Of Play has so much to recommend it, including a deep bench of character actors too many to list (though Jason Bateman deserves a mention because he steals the entire movie away), a compelling story (though it may have one twist too many), and the fact that it sends an audience home thinking. This last point is the most important – especially now with the summer blockbuster season upon us, it’s worth supporting the movies that have something to say.

 

 

 

 

Lady In The Water (2006)

M. Night Shyamalan, the kinda-sorta auteurist filmmaker who rocketed to above-the-title fame with a couple movies only to struggle critically over the tail end of the past decade, has a new movie coming out this summer.  It’s called AFTER EARTH and it stars Will Smith, one of the last dependable movie stars, and his son Jaden.  The movie is a sci-fi epic about a father and son who return to Earth in the deep future, long after the planet has been abandoned by humanity.  I included AFTER EARTH on my list of 2013’s potentially strangest movies, which is totally a dick move on my part.  I mean, how much have I done with MY life to be sitting here taking cheap shots?  At least this guy is out there making movies, and making them with some of the world’s hugest stars.  In my heart, I’m really not a so-called hater.

Quite the contrary in this case, in fact.  I think there’s a particular angst for movie lovers when we start following a talented filmmaker who then makes a severe right turn down the off-roads of unfulfilled or squandered promise.  It happened to me with Kevin Smith, for example, a witty, bold, and perceptive writer who I always hoped would take an interest in learning what to do with a camera, but it turned out he’d rather pursue other interests besides visual storytelling.  By contrast, Shyamalan never had a problem being cinematic, but he certainly grew overly enamored of certain tics that precluded concise and coherent films.  I would have liked to remain a fan, but at a certain point I had to decide that I didn’t want to follow these guys up their own asses.

So here’s a chronicle of me falling in love with another man’s talent, and then rapidly falling out of it.  I wrote most of this piece back in 2008 but unfortunately my mind hasn’t much changed since then.

NOTE: This will not include anything Shyamalan did before THE SIXTH SENSE, because I haven’t seen any of that stuff. I’m most interested in the Shyamalan of self-created myth & legend, the Shyamalan we have come to know in the past decade, the one who – like a young Bruce Wayne in his study who looked up at a bat and gained an instant career direction – looked up at the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK poster in his office and asked himself why he wasn’t making those kind of movies. That is the filmography I will be talking about here.

I also won’t be talking about anything after THE HAPPENING, for reasons that may soon enough become apparent.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) – This one came out of nowhere in the summer of 1999 and blew most people’s minds.  It was a ghost story with the emphasis on story.  The dramatic twist near the end actually deepens the experience, and it doesn’t hurt that it makes you want to re-watch the movie with the twist now in mind.  This is an extremely solid movie about faith and the after-life and how those intersect and overlap. Is it maybe even good enough to one day sit on a shelf alongside another one of the director’s inspirations, THE EXORCIST? That may be going a little far. But it does serve as an answer to the most vehement haters, the ones who, burned by his later films, have rechristened him F. Night Shyamalan:

Anybody wondering why they still allow this guy to make movies should re-watch THE SIXTH SENSE. It was a massive financial success achieved with an actually good movie. The people who make the decisions are no doubt optimistic that one day, this guy will do that again. (So am I, for the record.)

But the movie itself does indeed hold up to revisiting. To prospective screenwriters like myself, I also recommend reading it in script form, if you can track that down, because it’s still just as affecting on the page. This movie is so solid that it has a good performance by Donnie Wahlberg.  That’s directing, son.

The truth is that Shyamalan’s filmmaking talent is very real. Every movie he has made since THE SIXTH SENSE has contained varying degrees of that copious cinematic talent. Key word: “varying.” It’s why his filmography is so frustrating. He wouldn’t be so widely discussed if he wasn’t so capable.

UNBREAKABLE (2000)

UNBREAKABLE (2000) – I loved this one when it was first released. Saw it twice theatrically and a couple more times on DVD. So I hope that earns me enough leeway to suggest that it does not really hold up viscerally eight years later. It’s slow as a turtle attempting to moonwalk. Okay, hang on–

Here’s a rule: You can’t make a movie that’s more boring than real life. You just can’t. It’s why — to take a random and unrelated example — BROKEN FLOWERS was so disappointing to me. No matter how much Bill Murray you pour into a movie, you can’t slow a story down so much that you leave out the space for narrative.

Anyway, that’s why Shyamalan’s “deliberate” pacing falls so often flat. It also plays into the cardinal mistake Shyamalan likes to make of turning lighthearted subject matter — in this case superheroes — into a somber and ponderous suite of melancholy. It’s true that comic books themselves have been doing this for years, and now comic book movies are doing it too, so Shyamalan can’t be entirely faulted there.  In a way, he was ahead of the curve.

On an intellectual level, UNBREAKABLE still works. It’s an interesting approach to the standard superhero/supervillain origin story. I just don’t want to rewatch it ever again. Unless…

You know what would solve all its problems? If the once-rumored sequel were to actually happen. Because as it stands now, UNBREAKABLE feels like the longest first act ever.  I would definitely be curious as to what happens in the second UNBREAKABLE movie if it ever happened, especially since the second act is traditionally where the majority of the actual story takes place.  UNBREAKABLE doesn’t add up to much without its MR. GLASS STRIKES BACK.

Signs (2002)

SIGNS (2002) – Forget the fact that it’s kind of impossible to look at Mel Gibson anymore without off-the-screen baggage.  He’s fine in the movie, really.  It’s the movie itself that’s the problem.  This is where the storytelling problems infecting Shyamalan’s arsenal start to rear up violently. Shyamalan’s technical skill is still crazy-impressive – every scene where those aliens appear (or don’t) is freaky and great.

It’s the other stuff that just plain doesn’t add up in a coherent way — first and foremost that ending — and there’s been enough cyber-ink spilled on the subject for me to not bother to add to it. But the movie still made tons of money, and enough people still inexplicably say they like it, which is no doubt precisely how the first out-and-out blunder came to pass.

The Village (2004)

THE VILLAGE (2004) – Or as I call it affectionately: Cinematic blue-balls.

There’s nothing wrong with the original premise – colonial village is surrounded on all sides by a thick forest and maintaining an uneasy truce with the horrible monsters who live there – in fact that’s a great goddamn premise! And the way those red-cloaked spiny creatures are set up is chilling. Even knowing how things turned out, I still get chills thinking of their first couple appearances in the movie, and trust me, I don’t scare easy at movies. The first half of THE VILLAGE does the tough part and brings the fear.

So why completely subvert it for a corny twist ending? I’ll tell you how I figured out the twist after the first five minutes of the movie: “Okay, colonial village, bunch of musty old white people, how are they going to work in a role for the director, a modern-sounding East Indian guy, AHA! – it’s actually set in the present day!” And sure enough, there he was, and so it was. Sorry to ruin the movie, but you’d be a lot happier if you turned it off at the hour-mark anyway.

Lady in the Water (2006)

LADY IN THE WATER (2006) – Even worse, somehow.  Massive folly. Near-unbelievable, but I didn’t see it alone, so I know for a fact it really happened.

Reading Shyamalan print interviews is one of my guilty pleasures. I’m just fascinated by how someone so smart and talented can so often be so misguided. I may risk sounding like an asshole to say so, but I truly find it illuminating. For a while there, Shyamalan was fond of defending his work by questioning why so many people criticize him and not his movies. Seems to me that one way to avoid that is to take a break from casting yourself in your movies. Right? Kind of hard to separate the two when, in this case, you’re playing the pivotal role of the man who will write the book that will change the world, even though it will mean he will die a martyr. And you can’t be so naive as to think that notebook-toting, detail-oriented professional film critics won’t pick up on the fact that the only character to meet a gruesome death, in an entire movie about the act of storytelling itself, is the cranky film critic.

The same way that you can’t complain about the way that people are always trying to figure out the twist endings of your movies when you keep putting twist endings in your movies. Right?

I particularly liked how the title character spent very close to the entire running time curled up in the shower. That was exciting.

And Paul Giamatti had the speech impediment coming and going, and that Latino dude with the fucked-up arm… (Now I’m getting confused again.) The wolf made of grass was pretty cool though. (Was I high?)  Wikipedia tells me there was in fact a grass-wolf. It was called a “scrunt,” which really isn’t a great word to have in what was intended as a children’s movie.

The Happening (2008)

THE HAPPENING (2008) – Okay. Okay.

It’s starting to become apparent that the director may no longer be interested in suspenseful stories about the supernatural, and has in fact now evolved into the maker of really, really weird comedies.

If you go into THE HAPPENING in this spirit, you will not be disappointed. If you are looking for a creepy edge-of-the-seater, you surely will. Without giving anything important away (I want to leave the half-hearted yet still insane ultimate revelation to the bravest among you), here are some reasons why I enjoyed THE HAPPENING:

  • “Filbert.”  Let me explain: The main characters are fleeing Philadelphia on a railroad train, which inexplicably stops. Someone ducks their head away from the window, and the name of the town in which they are now stranded is revealed: Filbert. FILBERT! Duh-duh-duhhhhh! No, God, please, no, not…      Filbert! Filbert! Dooooom! I don’t even care whether or not I’m the only one who laughed at that, because it’s still funny to me. Fucking Filbert, man.
  • I was NOT, however, the only one who laughed when the construction workers started walking off the building. Everyone in my theater laughed at that.  It’s mostly because the plummeting crazies are played by dummies. And if we learned anything from The Three Stooges and Saturday Night Live, it’s that dummies are the greatest of all comedy props.
  • I don’t know who in all of Hollywood I would cast as a science teacher and a math teacher, respectively, but Mark Wahlberg and John Leguizamo are not they. Likable and down-to-earth actors both, but far better casting for, say, the cranky gym coach and the wisecracking AV teacher. They do their best, but the dialogue they are given does them no favors.
  • I swear a couple times Shyamalan cuts away from the action to a reaction shot of Zooey Deschanel and it looks like she’s trying to suppress a crack-up. Shyamalan may not have noticed, but I’m sure I did.
  • Intentional laughs are in the movie for sure, to the point where it’s almost confusing when it happens – stay tuned for the scene where Wahlberg tries to relate on a personal level to a plastic plant. Expertly written and played, and I’m not being sarcastic at all.
  • Far and away Shyamalan’s best and most hilarious cameo in all of his movies to date happens in THE HAPPENING. If you end up going, please stay for the credits to see what role he played. It’s just got to be a joke. But one of those jokes that only the one making it gets; you know that kind.
  • The Lion Scene! Oh man, the lion scene. The lion scene is a horror-comedy classic of which an EVIL DEAD 2-era Sam Raimi would be chainsaw-wieldingly envious. Soon to be a YouTube staple, guaranteed.

So if you’re looking for scary, this is not your territory. Watch the news instead. But if you’re a certain kind of moviegoer in a certain kind of mood, grab a couple like-minded buddies and Mystery-Science-Theater away.

Now, I skipped Shyamalan’s 2010 movie, THE LAST AIRBENDER, because I didn’t think my brain could handle all the fart jokes I was destined to make about that title.  By every last account (except probably Shyamalan’s), I made the correct decision.  But I’m curious about AFTER EARTH.  Did the nasty thrashing he got over his last couple flicks make Shyamalan reconsider some of his more over-used quirks?  Does the presence of Will Smith, one of the most infallible choosers of successful projects of the last decade-and-a-half, suggest that Shammy has reclaimed his earlier mojo?  The AFTER EARTH trailer does not look overtly comical.  It’s somewhat well paced, and more importantly, it has hordes of monkeys in it.  That’s not any guarantee I’ll be able to stay away.

@jonnyabomb

MANKEY

SALT (2010)

In honor of Angelina Jolie, I’m throwing it back to a good movie worth a look (largely due to Angelina herself), SALT. I originally wrote this in July of 2010.

SALT (2010)

I don’t know if anyone’s mentioned this before, but that Angelina Jolie, boy, she is one striking lady. She really does have an uncanny ability to command a camera any time she steps in front of one.  In her new movie SALT, the effect is magnified, seeing as how she happens to be standing in front of a camera that is being wielded by one of the world’s greatest cinematographers, Robert Elswit (who shot all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies and most of George Clooney’s.) Actually, she’s not doing much standing here, but instead running throughout the majority of SALT’s running time, dodging moving vehicles and speeding bullets and loud explosions, but through it all, Elswit never loses track of the movie’s main draw.

This being the internet, you don’t have to look far to read everyone from profound critical types to adolescent droolers and one-handed typers rhapsodizing over Angelina Jolie’s features, particularly her mouth, which consists of full lips and a sly, unpredictable smile. But in truth, the main feature which makes her a born movie star are her eyes. She has eyes which register huge onscreen, and which make you interested to know what she’s thinking. And that’s a large part of why SALT is so effective.

SALT (2010)

For a good length of the movie, you don’t know what the main character, Evelyn Salt, is thinking. Salt is a super-competent CIA agent who is accused by a captive Russian spymaster (played by veteran Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski) of being a sleeper agent for the KGB, which immediately puts her at odds with her mentor, Winter (played by the great Liev Schreiber) and his colleague, Peabody (played by the great Chiwetel Ejiofor.) The Russian spymaster is named Orlov, which immediately made me think of NOSFERATU, which, if intentional, is only one of SALT’s gloriously over-the-top touches that is played totally straight by several great actors and is therefore totally convincing.

Salt claims to be innocent, but she refuses to sit still for the standard interrogation, claiming that she needs to get home to protect her husband (and dog). This is how the chase begins. Winter and Peabody and a small army of heavily-armored agents chase Salt throughout New York City, unable to trust her motives. That’s pretty much the plot. What makes the chase so thrilling and rewarding is the tenor of the thing: We the audience are kept at emotional arm’s distance the whole way, even as we’re given front-row seats to the excellently-staged action. We look in those evocative eyes of Angelina’s and we want to see a good guy there, but we can’t quite trust it, and a couple of very reliable character actors are being convinced on our behalf that she is indeed on the wrong side. Salt’s very behavior begins to be suspect, even though Angelina couldn’t really be a bad guy, now, could she? Could she really be Russian? Are the Russians really still out to get us? (Apparently…) And does Salt really care about that husband after all?

(Maybe not: It’s another canny move on the filmmakers’ part that the husband who Salt is racing to get back to isn’t exactly a perfect dream. He’s written and shot sympathetically, but he’s also a German entomologist, which means he loves bugs and he’s German.  This ain’t exactly Brad Pitt here.)

SALT is a movie about consummate professionals that also happens to be made by consummate professionals. The fast-moving script is by action screenwriter Kurt Wimmer, with uncredited rewrites by Demon’s Resume favorite Brian Helgeland. The effective score is by James Newton Howard. The film was edited by a trio of expert editors, Stuart Baird, John Gilroy, and Steven Kemper. And at the helm is director Phillip Noyce, the strangely-underrated Australian craftsman, who is best known here for his two Jack Ryan movies with Harrison Ford (PATRIOT GAMES and CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER.) Noyce also made a much smaller movie back in his native Australia called RABBIT-PROOF FENCE, which is a special little film that I highly recommend.  RABBIT-PROOF FENCE is the work of a director who is interested in human beings, not just the espionage and action and suspense and machinery that he is obviously so skilled in capturing on film. That’s the human touch that he brings to SALT, along with the performance he gets out of his lead actress – fiery yet cold, sensitive yet emotionless, tender yet violent.

SALT (2010)

It’s interesting that, as all the pre-release press has mentioned, SALT was originally meant to star Tom Cruise. If I hadn’t have known that, I wouldn’t have thought it. It doesn’t feel like a Tom Cruise movie. SALT is definitely a star vehicle, and it plays perfectly to the strengths of its star. Angelina Jolie is the main reason that people will (hopefully) come out to see SALT, along with the thoroughly satisfying action setpieces, and having seen it, it’s hard to imagine it with any other lead actor. I thought that KNIGHT & DAY was ultimately the better choice for Tom Cruise – even though, despite it working pretty well as a star vehicle in its own right, it hasn’t really caught on with audiences. A good star vehicle has to serve its lead actor, to bring out what you love or find interesting about them while still finding ways to surprise you.

SALT is a great star vehicle for Angelina Jolie. It’s convincingly badass yet more emotional than the average spy thriller. I don’t know anyone who isn’t an Angelina fan, but in case you somehow aren’t, please give SALT a chance anyway, and do it on the big screen. After the tidal wave caused last week by  INCEPTION, it’s hard to imagine where action movies can go next. Maybe right now and for the time being, the only way to compete is to be thoroughly competent. SALT does that. It’s a great time at the movies, a BOURNE movie with a feminine twist, and if it’s successful enough to earn a sequel, I’d be very happy to see one.

SALT (2010)

@jonnyabomb