Mini Reviews (March 2009)
Gomorra, The Last House on the Left, Push, Red Sands, Sunshine Cleaning, Flicka
Gomorra (March 13/09)
It's ultimately more difficult to recall a more frustrating cinematic experience than Matteo Garrone's Gomorra, as the filmmaker slowly but surely squanders the impressively authentic atmosphere by stressing people and situations that couldn't possibly be less interesting. Garrone, along with his five (!) co-writers, essentially drops the viewer into the lives of the film's various characters with little by way of exposition, which proves effective in perpetuating the fly-on-the-wall, documentary-esque vibe that the director is clearly striving for. It's just as clear, however, that the lack of context grows increasingly problematic as Gomorra progresses, with the inherently baffling nature of the many subplots exacerbated by an emphasis on hopelessly inconsequential happenings (ie a classroom filled with sweatshop workers receives a sewing lesson). It's consequently not surprising to note that by the time the pieces finally do start to fall into place, the viewer's interest level has dropped to a point at which it's impossible to work up any sympathy for the movie's almost uniformly downtrodden figures. This is despite Garrone's admittedly strong directorial choices and the inclusion of several unexpected stirring performances, with the latter particularly impressive given the presence of non-actors in virtually all of the film's central roles. The overwhelming absence of viewer-friendly elements inevitably ensures that Gomorra remains unusually uninvolving for the majority of its overlong running time, as watching the movie is primarily an experience akin to joining an episodic television series in the middle of its run.
The Last House on the Left (March 14/09)
An obvious improvement over its amateurish predecessor, The Last House on the Left employs the basic structure of Wes Craven's 1972 debut as a springboard for an uneven yet consistently engaging horror effort. The storyline follows athletic teenager Mari Collingwood (Sara Paxton) as she and a friend (Martha MacIsaac's Paige) are kidnapped, assaulted, and left for dead by a quartet of vicious goons (led by Garret Dillahunt's Krug), with the latter half of the proceedings detailing Mari's parents' (Tony Goldwyn's John and Monica Potter's Emma) efforts at avenging the mistreatment of their only child. It's a set-up that'll seem instantly familiar to those viewers with even a passing familiarity with Craven's creation, yet there's little doubt that screenwriters Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth generally do a superb job of infusing the proceedings with bursts of unexpected innovation (ie Krug's backstory, Mari's fate, etc). It's also worth noting that the misguided comedic elements that plagued the first film are entirely absent here, as director Dennis Illiadis emphasizes an atmosphere of dread that pervades throughout much of The Last House on the Left's (admittedly overlong) running time. And while Illiadis and company eschew the torture and sadism featured so prominently in the original (ie the notorious "pee your pants" interlude has been excised), the movie is often quite unflinching in its portrayal of violence and it's certainly not difficult to envision certain viewers having a tough time with the intentionally hard-to-watch rape sequence. The uniformly strong performances cement the picture's place as an above-average horror remake, and though there are admittedly a few lulls within the narrative (ie the film probably should've topped out at 80 minutes), it ultimately goes without saying that The Last House on the Left is superior in every conceivable way to its head-scratchingly lauded predecessor.
Push (March 19/09)
Though it boasts a striking visual sensibility and a number of admittedly thrilling action sequences, Push suffers from an uneven sensibility that essentially holds the viewer at arm's length virtually from start to finish. This is despite an opening half hour that's actually quite promising, as screenwriter David Bourla emphasizes a series of individually-compelling set pieces that prove effective at establishing the movie's off-kilter alternate reality. The film, which follows several paranormally-gifted characters (including Chris Evans' Nick Gant and Dakota Fanning's Cassie Holmes) as they attempt to unravel a sinister government conspiracy, benefits substantially from Peter Sova's kinetic cinematography and François Séguin's future-punk production design, and it's consequently not a stretch to label Push a cinematic cousin to Michael Winterbottom's similarly-themed sci-fi endeavor Code 46. Such comparisons inevitably prove to be unfounded, however, as the middling midsection eventually gives way to a third act that's almost absurdly convoluted - with the increasingly underdeveloped characters preventing the viewer from forming an emotional attachment to the various protagonists. The needlessly frenetic conclusion only cements Push's place as a headache-inducing piece of work, which is certainly a shame give the talent both in front of and behind the camera.
Red Sands (March 24/09)
Director Alex Turner's follow-up to his impressive debut, 2004's Dead Birds, Red Sands follows a group of American soldiers (including Shane West's Jeff Keller, Leonard Roberts' Marcus Howston, and Callum Blue's Gregory Wilcox) as they're confronted with an ancient evil while stranded in the middle of the Afghanistan desert. It's a relatively promising set-up that's generally employed to middling effect by Turner and screenwriter Simon Barrett, with the pair initially bogging the proceedings down with an almost painfully uneventful sensibility - as the film's various characters essentially hunker down within a dilapidated stone house and wait for trouble to ensue. And while the above-average performances and atmospheric visuals prove effective at mildly sustaining the viewer's interest, there inevitably reaches a point at which one can't help but grow impatient for something of substance to occur. The increasingly prevalent emphasis on the protagonists' horrific hallucinations certainly doesn't help matters, as such interludes effectively infuse the proceedings with a been-there-done-that sort of vibe that ultimately proves oppressive - with the interchangeable nature of the movie's various characters only exacerbating this feeling. The end result is an ambitious yet wholly underwhelming endeavor that might've benefited from a much more brief running time, admittedly, although Red Sands' inherently flawed (and downright tedious) premise likely would have spelled doom even for a brisk short film.
Sunshine Cleaning (March 26/09)
Sunshine Cleaning follows a pair of squabbling sisters (Amy Adams' Rose and Emily Blunt's Norah) as they attempt to start up (and maintain) a crime-scene cleaning business, with the bulk of the proceedings subsequently following their efforts at dealing with a variety of work-related incidents and personal problems. Director Christine Jeffs has infused Sunshine Cleaning with a low-key, almost unassuming visual style that ideally complements Megan Holley's subtle screenplay, yet there's little doubt that it's the uniformly stellar (and downright captivating) performances that prove instrumental in sustaining the viewer's interest. Adams' ingratiating work as the perpetually sunny Rose is effectively counterbalanced by Blunt's turn as her sullen sibling, while there's certainly no denying the exemplary efforts of the film's periphery performers - with Clifton Collins Jr.'s sympathetic, flat-out engrossing stint as Rose's one-armed benefactor (and potential suitor) Winston standing out amidst a supporting cast that includes Alan Arkin, Steven Zahn, and Mary Lynn Rajskub. The almost episodic nature of Holley's script admittedly does ensure that certain sequences and subplots don't fare as well as others - ie Norah's ongoing encounters with Rajskub's Lynn can't help but come off as fairly needless in the big picture - and it's ultimately clear that the movie could've benefited from some judicious pruning around its edges. The inclusion of several genuinely touching moments within the movie's third act makes it simple enough to overlook such problems, however, and Sunshine Cleaning finally (and firmly) establishes itself as a charming and easy-going indie treat.
Flicka (March 28/09)
Based on a novel by Mary O'Hara, Flicka follows a rebellious teen (Alison Lohman's Katy McLaughlin) as she befriends a wild stallion over the course of one particularly eventful summer - much to the chagrin of her old-fashioned and overly protective father (Tim McGraw's Rob). Though filmmaker Michael Mayer effectively peppers the proceedings with a number of striking sequences - ie Flicka runs through a herd of quarter-horses and leads them on a chase - Flicka suffers from a pervasively inauthentic atmosphere that's ultimately exacerbated by the underwhelming performances and almost unreasonably sluggish pace. In terms of the former, Lohman proves utterly unable to convincingly step into the shoes of a free-spirited young girl - with the actress' advanced age ensuring that Katy, rather than possessing the countenance of a typically ebullient teenager, primarily comes off as a dangerously obsessive and emotionally unbalanced figure (ie her fixation on the title creature is nothing short of baffling and it subsequently becomes awfully difficult not to side with her father on the issue). Likewise, McGraw's less-than-competent work sticks out like a sore thumb amidst a surprisingly strong supporting cast that includes Maria Bello, Dallas Roberts, and Ryan Kwanten (with the latter's turn as Katy's older brother providing the film with one its few intriguing subplots). And although the movie does improve slightly as it enters its unexpectedly eventful third act, Flicka's inability to hold the viewer's interest for more than a few minutes at a time inevitably cements its place as an entirely needless piece of work.