Mini Reviews (June 2012)
Piranha 3DD, Hysteria, 388 Arletta Avenue, Chain Letter, Fright Night, Brave, People Like Us, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, That's My Boy
Piranha 3DD (June 3/12)
Picking up shortly after the events of its 2010 predecessor, Piranha, Piranha 3DD details the chaos that ensues at a water park after the titular creatures find their way into the plumbing. It's a purposefully tongue-in-cheek setup that's generally employed to underwhelming effect by filmmaker John Gulager, as the movie, which has clearly been shot on a shoestring, boasts a roster of hopelessly forgettable central characters and, for the most part, lurches from one poorly-conceived set-piece to the next. The film consequently suffers from an absence of momentum that proves rather disastrous, though there's little doubt that the sporadic inclusion of appreciatively gory interludes prevents Piranha 3DD's transformation into an irredeemable waste of time. (It's clear, too, that the movie benefits from the return of Ving Rhames' Deputy Fallon and Paul Scheer's Andrew, with the hilarious banter between their respective characters - eg "Don't listen to my pussy-ass mouth!" - standing as an obvious highlight within the proceedings.) The film's most disappointing stretch, however, is undoubtedly the climactic massacre at the aforementioned water park, as the sequence, which ultimately stands in sharp contrast to the gleefully over-the-top bloodbath within Alexandre Aja's superior first movie, has been infused with a palpably low-rent feel that's compounded by Gulager's oddly incoherent directorial choices. It is, as a result, impossible to label Piranha 3DD as anything more than a fairly blatant cash-grab, which is a shame, certainly, given the potential offered by both the premise and the original film.
Hysteria (June 5/12)
Hysteria follows 18th century doctor Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) as he accepts a position with a physician (Jonathan Pryce's Robert Dalrymple) renown for his questionable treatment of female hysteria (ie he pleasures his patients with his right hand), with the movie detailing Mortimer's ongoing efforts at adjusting to the demands of the job and winning over the various patients. (Mortimer must also contend with his boss' two very different daughters, Felicity Jones' sweet Emily and Maggie Gyllenhaal's fiery Charlotte.) There's little doubt that Hysteria, despite the seemingly can't-miss nature of its premise, is never quite able to wholeheartedly capture the viewer's attention or interest, as filmmaker Tanya Wexler, working from Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer's almost aggressively light-hearted screenplay, has infused the proceedings with a sluggish feel that slowly-but-surely cancels out its positive attributes (including the charming performances and impressive period design and costumes). The inherently compelling nature of Dalrymple's "treatment" is often eschewed in favor of the melodramatic (and hopelessly dull) exploits of the various characters, with, especially, the tedious arc of Gyllenhaal's Charlotte - which culminates in an entirely anticlimactic courtroom sequence - ranking high on the film's list of misbegotten attributes. The pervasively uninvolving atmosphere, which only grows more and more pronounced as time progresses, proves effective at transforming Hysteria into a seriously interminable piece of work, and there's ultimately little doubt that the movie would've been hard-pressed to justify its existence even as a 15-minute short.
388 Arletta Avenue (June 11/12)
Filmed entirely from the perspective of a stalker, 388 Arletta Avenue follows Nick Stahl's James and Mia Kirshner's Amy as their lives are increasingly disrupted by a mysterious figure - with the initially innocuous nature of the intrusion (eg James discovers an oldies mix disc in his car) eventually (and inevitably) giving way to something far more sinister. There's little doubt that 388 Arletta Avenue's central stylistic conceit does take some getting used to, as director Randall Cole offers up an opening half hour that is, admittedly, a little light on exposition and character development - with the viewer's efforts at embracing the protagonists exacerbated by the hands-off nature of the film's perspective (eg the nameless stalker initially shoots the couple from his automobile before placing hidden cameras within their home, cars, and places of work). It's worth noting, however, that the movie remains oddly compelling even through its virtually context-free opening stretch, with the inherently intriguing presentation certainly going a long way towards immediately capturing the viewer's curiosity and interest. There is, as such, no denying that 388 Arletta Avenue improves demonstrably as time progresses, as Cole, in addition to peppering the proceedings with impressively creepy images (eg the stalker films James while he sleeps), does a nice job of infusing the narrative with a progressively ominous vibe that proves impossible to resist. And although there are a few lulls here and there, 388 Arletta Avenue builds to an absolutely captivating final stretch that's far more suspenseful and tense than one might've anticipated - with the stirring climax hindered only by a rather needless epilogue (ie the movie reaches a logical end point and goes on for an extra 30 seconds or so, which is a minor complaint, admittedly, for a film that is otherwise remarkably compelling).
Chain Letter (June 16/12)
Chain Letter follows a group of interchangeable high school friends as they receive (and delete) a chain email and are subsequently knocked off one by one by a chain-wielding maniac, with the film, for the most part, detailing plucky survivor Jessie Campbell's (Nikki Reed) ongoing efforts at solving the mystery behind the letter. (There's also an absolutely interminable subplot revolving around the dimwitted detective, Keith David's Jim Crenshaw, assigned to the case.) There's little doubt that Chain Letter opens with a fair amount of promise, as filmmaker Deon Taylor, working from a script cowritten with Diana Erwin and Michael J. Pagan, kicks the proceedings off with an irresistibly brutal, Saw-like sequence that instantly captures the viewer's interest. From there, however, the movie morphs into a progressively tedious thriller that boasts few compelling attributes - with Taylor's relentlessly ostentatious directorial choices draining the energy from the movie's various kill sequences (ie enough with the strobe effect, already). (It doesn't help, either, that the filmmaker skimps on the gore in such moments, which lends the movie a demonstrable what's-the-point-of-all-this-exactly sort of feel.) Chain Letter's progressively unwatchable atmosphere is perpetuated by the presence of hopelessly one-dimensional characters and the inclusion of palpably pointless subplots, with, in terms of the latter, virtually everything involving David's dunderheaded character bringing the narrative to a dead stop (eg there's a painfully drawn-out interlude in which Crenshaw speaks to a man who may or may not know the origins of the killer's chains). The end result is one of the most disastrously underwhelming and incompetent horror flicks to come around in quite some time, which is a shame, really, given the presence of such noted genre staples as Brad Dourif, Charles Fleischer, and Betsy Russell within the supporting cast.
Fright Night (June 17/12)
Fright Night follows affable teen Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) as he discovers that his charismatic neighbor (Colin Farrell's Jerry) is, in fact, a vampire, with the film subsequently detailing Charley's ongoing efforts at evading Jerry's malicious advances and, eventually, killing the psychotic bloodsucker. It's a strong (albeit familiar) premise that's immediately threatened by a surprisingly (and distractingly) low-rent visual sensibility, as filmmaker Craig Gillespie, along with cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, has infused Fright Night with a hackneyed artificial darkness - ie it's almost as if the pair were trying to emulate the appearance of David Fincher's movies - that both holds the viewer at arm's length and highlights the laughably unconvincing computer-generated special effects. And while Farrell is admittedly quite good as the smooth, charismatic Jerry, Yelchin is simply unable to become the compelling protagonist that the narrative clearly requires - with the actor's less-than-engrossing performance matched by an underwhelmingly bland supporting cast (eg Toni Collette, playing Charley's concerned mother, is hopelessly wasted here). The movie's various problems are compounded by its regrettable lack of strong horror elements, as Gillespie places a consistent emphasis on set-pieces of a decidedly lifeless nature (eg there's a palpably awful Children of Men-like sequence in which Jerry attacks a car full of potential victims). By the time the nigh endless climax rolls around, Fright Night has certainly established itself as just another in a long line of needless horror remakes - with the movie's failure especially disappointing given the strength of Farrell's engaging performance (and it's also worth noting that David Tennant does manage to inject some life into the proceedings with his small role as a Vegas vampire hunter).
Brave (June 19/12)
A marked improvement over last year's underwhelming Cars sequel, Brave follows a Scottish Princess (Kelly Macdonald's Merida) as she's forced by her parents (Billy Connolly's Fergus and Emma Thompson's Elinor) to participate in a husband-finding archery tournament - with the film subsequently taking a rather unexpected twist after Merida runs away from her castle in an anger-fueled huff. There's little doubt that Brave gets off to an impressively captivating start, as filmmakers Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews kick off the proceedings with an engaging and thoroughly exciting pre-credits sequence that instantly captures the viewer's attention. The promisingly entertaining atmosphere is, at the outset, heightened by the expectedly jaw-dropping visuals and emphasis on irresistibly affable supporting figures, although it's immediately clear that the biggest attraction here is the central character herself - with Merida, anchored by Macdonald's superb performance, effortlessly confirming her place alongside the animation realm's most memorable female protagonists. It's only as Brave segues into its admittedly unpredictable midsection that one's interest begins to flag, as the aforementioned plot development, when it does arrive, proves to be something of a disappointment - with its decidedly (and almost aggressively) conventional nature standing in sharp contrast to the majority of what precedes it. There are a few standout sequences sprinkled here and there - eg Merida rallies the troops with an engrossingly impassioned speech - and the Pixar touch persistently sustains the watchable vibe, yet the film, once the narrative proper kicks in, is never quite able to recapture the fun, easy-going feel of its opening half hour. The end result is an entertainingly middle-of-the-road animated endeavor that isn't, for the most part, able to live up to the high-water-mark of such previous Pixar releases as WALL-E, Up, and the Toy Story trilogy, although, to be fair, the film is certainly yards better than the majority of the animated fare flooding multiplexes.
People Like Us (June 20/12)
People Like Us follows Chris Pine's Sam as he reluctantly attends his estranged father's funeral and is subsequently stunned to learn that he has an adult sister (Elizabeth Banks' Frankie) and a scrappy nephew (Michael Hall D'Addario's Josh), with Sam's head-scratching decision not to immediately divulge this information to Frankie laying the groundwork for a narrative that stretches credibility at every turn. Filmmaker Alex Kurtzman, working from a script cowritten with Roberto Orci and Jody Lambert, has infused People Like Us with a slick and extensively generic feel that is, at the outset, counterbalanced by the compelling performances, as star Pine's irresistibly charming turn is complemented by an off-kilter supporting cast that includes, among others, Philip Baker Hall, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mark Duplass, and Jon Favreau. The movie's bland yet watchable atmosphere persists right up until Sam begins passing himself off as a random stranger to Banks' character, with the hopeless artificiality of this twist adversely coloring everything that follows and ultimately rendering the movie's positive attributes moot. (It doesn't help, either, that the film's pace grows more and more plodding as time progresses.) There is, as a result, little doubt that Kurtzman's climactic attempts at eliciting an emotional response from the viewer fall entirely (and palpably) flat, and it's finally difficult to recall a movie leveled so definitively and so pervasively by a plot development (ie it's just that hokey and unbelievable).
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (June 22/12)
Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World follows Steve Carell's Dodge as he attempts to cope with the impending apocalypse by embarking on a road trip with an off-kilter neighbor (Keira Knightley's Penny). Scafaria has infused the early part of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World with a comedically-charged (yet appropriately downbeat) vibe that's reflected in Dodge's encounters with various supporting characters (eg Rob Corddry's hedonistic Warren, Melanie Lynskey's sweet yet simpleminded Karen, etc), with the meandering atmosphere affording the early part of the proceedings the feel of a low-key character study. It's just as clear, though, that the movie demonstrably stumbles as it enters its episodic midsection, with the proliferation of less-than-stellar segments - eg Dodge and Penny stumble into a restaurant populated by drugged-out waiters and patrons, encounter a house full of survivalists, are arrested by an unreasonably rigid police officer, etc, etc - ensuring that one's interest palpably begins to flag during this stretch. There reaches a very specific point, however, at which Seeking a Friend for the End of the World finally morphs into the affecting drama promised by the setup, and the movie subsequently becomes more and more engrossing in the build-up to its emotionally-wrenching finale - with the irresistibly romantic bent of Dodge and Penny's relationship ensuring that the film, in the end, makes a far more pronounced impact on the viewer than one might've reasonably expected.
That's My Boy (June 22/12)
A typically terrible Adam Sandler comedy, That's My Boy opens with a long, tedious prologue revolving around a teenager's (Justin Weaver's Donny) illicit affair with his fetching teacher (Eva Amurri's Mary) - with the union ultimately sending Mary to prison and leaving Donny forced to raise the resulting baby. Decades later, Donny (Sandler) attempts to raise some quick cash by agreeing to participate in a televised reunion with Mary and his now adult son (Andy Samberg's Todd) - although, as becomes clear, Todd wants absolutely nothing to do with his irresponsible father. Right from the get-go, with its statutory-rape opening, That's My Boy establishes itself as a misguided and aggressively unfunny endeavor that boasts few attributes designed to capture and sustain the viewer's interest - with Sandler's grating performance (ie what's the deal with that voice?) merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of the movie's deficiencies. Far more problematic is the film's almost total lack of laughs, as director Sean Anders, working from David Caspe's screenplay, places a consistent emphasis on jokes and gags of a misguided, hopelessly unfunny nature. (It is, for example, impossible not to wonder just what's supposed to be hilarious about Todd's boss' casual racism towards his Asian employees.) Even if one were willing to overlook That's My Boy's atmosphere of grim humorlessness, the viewer would still be forced to contend with the decidedly lifeless pace and padded-out running time (ie there's a bachelor-party sequence that just feels endless). By the time the eye-rollingly melodramatic and predictable final stretch rolls around, That's My Boy has established itself as just another disastrous example of Sandler's now total irrelevance - with, admittedly, the inclusion of a few chuckle-worthy Vanilla Ice references (eg the 5.0 from the "Ice Ice Baby" video makes an amusing appearance) preventing the movie from reaching Jack and Jill levels of incompetence.