Mini Reviews (October 2011)
Valentino: The Last Emperor, Take Shelter, Terri, Colombiana, Lipstick, From Paris With Love, Young Adult, 976-Evil, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Hoax For The Holidays
Valentino: The Last Emperor (October 1/11)
It's ultimately difficult to envision all but the most ardent of fashion fans finding much to embrace in Valentino: The Last Emperor, as filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer has infused the movie with a narrow-minded feel that's guaranteed to leave neophytes scratching their heads and checking their watches (ie there's just no entry point here for the average viewer). The film's failure is especially disappointing given the relatively watchable nature of its opening half hour, as Tyrnauer does a nice job of incorporating intriguing behind-the-scenes footage of garments being created into the otherwise uneventful proceedings. It's only as the director focuses on Valentino Garavani himself that the movie loses its tenuous hold on the viewer, with the most obvious problem here Tyrnauer's ongoing struggles at transforming his subject into a wholeheartedly compelling figure. Garavani, swaddled in absurd clothes and sporting a tan that would make George Hamilton envious, is painted as a ridiculous yet successful fashion designer who seems to spend every waking moment at work, with Tyrnauer's reluctance to explore the man's private life certainly confirming the movie's place as a one-sided effort that's almost entirely lacking in mainstream appeal.
Take Shelter (October 7/11)
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, Take Shelter details the turmoil that ensues after a normal family man (Michael Shannon's Curtis) begins experiencing nightmares (or visions) of an increasingly disturbing variety - with the frightening images prompting Curtis to build an impenetrable storm shelter behind his house. (Curtis' wife, Jessica Chastain's Samantha, makes a dogged attempt to stand by her man, but even she begins to question his state of mind.) Filmmaker Nichols' pervasively subdued approach ensures that Take Shelter, for the most part, boasts the feel of a low-key character study, with this vibe perpetuated by the slow-moving pace and general emphasis on the protagonist's day-to-day exploits. The periodic inclusion of ominous elements - eg Curtis' creepy nightmares - affords the movie a palpable undercurrent of mounting dread, though it's clear that Nichols is more concerned with exploring Curtis' mental state than with creating an atmosphere of terror. It's an unusual choice that works primarily due to Shannon's absolutely riveting performance, with the actor's enthralling work sustaining the viewer's interest even through the movie's more overtly deliberate stretches. The needlessly overlong running time ultimately diminishes Take Shelter's overall impact, however, as it's clear that the film would've benefited from a few more passes through the editing bay (ie there's no reason for a film like this to run more than 90 minutes). That being said, Take Shelter does boast an admittedly engrossing final half hour that leaves one wishing the remainder of the proceedings had been as tight and entertaining - which effectively cements the movie's place as a consistently watchable yet pervasively uneven drama.
Terri (October 12/11)
A low-key coming-of-age story, Terri follows the title character (Jacob Wysocki), a depressive, overweight teenager, as his life takes a turn for the better after he befriends his school's outgoing principal (John C. Reilly's Mr. Fitzgerald) and two fellow social outcasts (Bridger Zadina's Chad and Olivia Crocicchia's Heather). There's little doubt that Terri gets off to an almost unwatchable start, as filmmaker Azazel Jacobs, working from Patrick Dewitt's screenplay, offers up an oppressively deliberate opening half hour that's rife with pointless interludes and uneventful stretches (eg Terri sets up mousetraps in his house). The film's less-than-engrossing atmosphere is compounded by Wysocki's competent yet charmless performance, with the actor's subdued work holding the viewer at arm's length and ensuring that his character never quite becomes the wholeheartedly sympathetic figure that Jacobs has clearly intended. Terri's dull atmosphere persists right up until Reilly's Mr. Fitzgerald enters the proceedings, as the actor, who delivers as entertaining and magnetic a performance as one might've expected, infuses the film with a much-needed jolt of energy that effectively (and instantly) buoys the viewer's waning interest. And although Reilly is consistently engaging here (eg at the close of a meeting, his character tells a student, "Fitzy needs a high five!"), Terri, which eventually morphs into a deadpan, Napoleon Dynamite-like comedy, peters out significantly as it passes the one-hour mark - as the movie is ultimately dominated by sequences of an overlong and flat-out interminable nature (eg a friendly sleepover that turns ugly). It is, as a result, impossible to label Terri as anything more than a sporadically passable yet hopelessly uneven piece of work, with Reilly's mere presence going a long way towards perpetuating the film's mildly watchable atmosphere.
Colombiana (October 15/11)
The latest disappointing actioner from producer Luc Besson, Colombiana follows Zoe Saldana's Cataleya as she embarks on a campaign of revenge against the mobsters responsible for her father's death - with her ongoing efforts inevitably catching the eye of a tenacious detective (Lennie James' Ross) and a feared gangster (Jordi Molla's Marco). There's little doubt that Colombiana fares best in its opening fifteen minutes, as filmmaker Olivier Megaton kicks off the proceedings with an admittedly exciting prologue in which an adolescent Cataleya (Amandla Stenberg) must outrun several goons through the streets of Colombia. From there, however, the film morphs into a typically overblown and hopelessly tedious action flick - as Megaton infuses many of the movie's high-octane moments with a jittery sensibility that proves disastrous. The filmmaker's overuse of shaky camerawork and rapid-fire editing is exacerbated by the movie's distressing lack of actual violence, with the bloodless kills preventing the viewer from deriving any visceral pleasure out of such moments. Far more problematic, however, is the palpable lull within the film's almost sedate midsection, as Megaton attempts to pad out the running time by stressing Cataleya's pointless relationship with a friendly painter (Michael Vartan's Danny). The incompetent atmosphere ensures that Colombiana's action-packed final stretch is nothing short of interminable, and it's ultimately difficult to imagine all but the most indiscriminate of teenagers finding much here worth embracing.
Lipstick (October 17/11)
Lipstick follows model Chris McCormick (Margaux Hemingway) as she invites her little sister's music teacher (Chris Sarandon's Gordon Stuart) to her apartment, with the friendly encounter inevitably turning nasty as Chris is beaten and raped by her psychotic visitor. Chris subsequently hires a lawyer (Anne Bancroft's Carla Bondi) and takes her attacker to court, although, as expected, the trial turns acrimonious as Gordon naturally denies any wrongdoing and insists that the lovemaking was initiated by Chris. In its early stages, Lipstick boasts a decidedly overwrought feel that's compounded by its emphasis on less-than-artful elements - with the film's pervasive lack of subtlety resulting in an atmosphere akin to a generic movie-of-the-week. The movie, which is hopelessly laughable at times (eg Gordon calls up Chris and plays her one of his Ross Geller-like compositions... in the nude!), unfolds at an excessively deliberate pace that only highlights its various problems, and there's just never a point wherein the viewer is able to wholeheartedly embrace either the characters or the curiously disjointed narrative. ((Having said that, it's impossible not to derive some enjoyment out of a few of the trial scenes - with the highlight undoubtedly Carla's vicious cross-examination of Sarandon's smug character.) By the time the gleefully over-the-top and spectacularly shocking finale rolls around, Lipstick has established itself as a pervasively uneven drama/thriller that is, for the most part, simply too slow for its own good (ie had the thing moved a little faster, one might have been more willing to overlook its deficiencies).
From Paris With Love (October 18/11)
Directed by Pierre Morel, From Paris With Love details the chaos that ensues after an Ambassador's aide (Jonathan Rhys Meyers' James Reece) agrees to help a rogue American agent (John Travolta's Charlie Wax) prevent a terrorist attack - with the latter's unconventional methods landing the former in hot water with his superiors and his girlfriend (Kasia Smutniak's Caroline). It's a workable premise that's squandered from the word go by Morel, as the filmmaker, working from Adi Hasak's screenplay, has infused the movie with an incongruously deliberate pace that's exacerbated by a lack of both context and character development. There is, as a result, never a point at which the viewer is able to wholeheartedly work up any interest in the protagonists' ongoing efforts, with the needlessly convoluted storyline and pervasive lack of momentum effectively draining the film's action sequences of their energy and impact. It doesn't help, either, that Travolta, charismatic as he may be, is simply unable to convincingly step into the shoes of his seemingly indestructible character, as the actor's tubby physique and advanced age stand in sharp contrast to Wax's penchant for effortlessly fighting his way out of any given situation. The inclusion of a surprisingly decent twist at around the one-hour mark admittedly does improve things substantially, with the movie's third act subsequently packing more thrills and excitement than one could have reasonably expected. It's a strong stretch that isn't, in the final analysis, able to compensate for the hopelessly dull nature of everything preceding it, which effectively cements From Paris With Love's place as just another underwhelming contemporary actioner.
Young Adult (October 18/11)
An impressive departure for both Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody, Young Adult follows Charlize Theron's Mavis Gary, an emotionally-stunted and depressive author of adolescent fare, as she impulsively decides to return to her hometown after discovering that high school sweetheart Buddy (Patrick Wilson) has just had a baby - with the film, for the most part, detailing Mavis' efforts at winning Buddy back and also her growing bond with a former classmate (Patton Oswalt's Matt). It's clear right from the get-go that Reitman and Cody have little interest in returning to the comedic, off-kilter landscape of their breakout film, 2007's Juno, as Young Adult immediately establishes itself as a low-key character study that often goes to unexpectedly (and impressively) dark places. The movie's most potent weapon is, without question, Theron's consistently engrossing performance, with the actress' fearless, go-for-broke turn initially capturing the viewer's interest and ultimately ensuring that Mavis, despite her less-than-sunny personality, becomes a compelling (and surprisingly sympathetic) figure. (Oswalt, cast as a put-upon geek who remains haunted by his high school experiences, is nothing short of a revelation, as his work here is miles beyond anything he's done before.) Reitman's subdued approach certainly proves an ideal complement to Cody's episodic screenplay, and while the film is occasionally just a little too uneventful for its own good, Young Adult boasts an increasingly captivating third act that culminates in a showstopping sequence that's as enthralling as it is cringeworthy. The decidedly unpredictable ending cements the movie's place as a seriously divisive piece of work, and it's finally impossible to recall a more impressive leap forward for either a screenwriter or a director in recent memory.
976-Evil (October 24/11)
Directed by Robert Englund, 976-Evil follows rebellious teenager Spike (Patrick O'Bryan) as he impulsively decides to call a 1-900 number to get his "horrorscope" and, shortly after, begins committing a variety of crimes. Spike's put-upon cousin, Hoax (Stephen Geoffreys), decides to call the 1-900 number himself after learning of its supernatural powers, with the film subsequently detailing Hoax's slow but steady transformation into a bloodthirsty demon. Englund, working from a script by Rhet Topham and Brian Helgeland (!), has infused 976-Evil with an aggressively campy feel that immediately sets the viewer on edge, with the movie's eye-rollingly off-kilter vibe compounded by its proliferation of one-dimensional characters and surprisingly convoluted narrative. Equally problematic is Englund's decision to employ as incongruously slow and muddled a pace as one could possibly envision, as the excessively deliberate atmosphere effectively holds the viewer at arm's length and ensures that one can't help but wish that Englund would just get on with it already. The film's rampant quirkiness, which is never more evident than in Sandy Dennis' obnoxiously over-the-top turn as Hoax's religious aunt, proves instrumental in ultimately cementing 976-Evil's place as a hopelessly obnoxious piece of work, with the overblown third act paving the way for an anticlimactic finish that is, admittedly, right in line with everything leading up to it.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (October 28/11)
Martha Marcy May Marlene follows Elizabeth Olsen's Martha as she escapes from a Manson-like cult and moves in with her increasingly exasperated sister (Sarah Paulson's Lucy), with the film subsequently unfolding in both the past (Martha's initial introduction to the aforementioned cult and her efforts at finding a place there) and the present (Martha's day-to-day life with her sister and her sister's fiancé). It's a promising setup that's employed to consistently underwhelming effect by filmmaker Sean Durkin, as the director, who admittedly does open the proceedings with some promise, has infused Martha Marcy May Marlene with a vague and excessively deliberate sensibility that consistently impedes one's efforts at embracing either the storyline or the characters. Exacerbating the movie's hands-off atmosphere is the rather baffling nature of Martha's decision to stay with the community, with the cult's treatment of its female members - eg rape, subservience, etc - preventing the viewer from wholeheartedly buying into its entire existence. (This proves to be especially problematic as Olsen's character welcomes a teenage girl into the fold, as it's rather difficult to believe that Martha wouldn't warn the newcomer of the oppressive, prison-like atmosphere.) And although Durkin has admittedly peppered the film with a handful of compelling sequences, Martha Marcy May Marlene ultimately comes off as nothing more than a showcase for several stirring performances (eg Olsen's star-making turn as the title character) - with the movie's final insult an obnoxiously abrupt ending that leaves far too many questions unanswered.
Hoax For The Holidays (October 31/11)
An often interminable piece of work, Hoax For The Holidays follows Martha MacIsaac's Casey McCullen as she creates a firestorm of media activity after tossing a cup of coffee against the outside wall of a local donut shop - with the image, which apparently resembles Jesus, forcing the community's myriad of residents to confront their individual problems. Filmmaker George Mihalka, working from Josh MacDonald's script, has infused the early part of Hoax For The Holidays with a disastrously uneventful sensibility that immediately sets the viewer on edge, with the less-than-compelling atmosphere compounded by the film's total lack of interesting, three-dimensional characters. (This is true even of MacIsaac's affable protagonist, as Casey, for the most part, comes off as a generic small-town-girl-with-dreams-of-escaping-to-the-big-city type.) The movie's inert sensibilities are compounded by an ongoing emphasis on subplots that couldn't possibly be less interesting (eg Casey's romance with a dimwitted local), and there's little doubt that one's continuing efforts at finding something (anything) here to wholeheartedly embrace are thwarted at every turn. By the time the eye-rollingly preachy finale rolls around, Hoax For The Holidays has certainly cemented its place as an interminable and uncommonly wrongheaded bit of independent filmmaking - with the pervasively unwatchable vibe leading the viewer to wonder which demographic, if any, the film has been geared toward.