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Mini Reviews (October 2010)

Charlie St. Cloud, Teenage Paparazzo, The Lottery, Please Remove Your Shoes, Devil, Maniac, Catfish, Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy

Charlie St. Cloud (October 2/10)

Based on the book by Ben Sherwood, Charlie St. Cloud casts Zac Efron as the title character - a high schooler who is forced to put his competitive sailing career on hold following the death of his beloved younger brother (Charlie Tahan's Sam). The situation is inevitably complicated by Charlie's realization that he can actually see and interact with Sam's spirit, with the film subsequently revolving around Charlie's ongoing encounters with his dead sibling and also his tentative relationship with a former classmate (Amanda Crew's Tess Carroll). It's a rather unusual premise that's initially employed to promising effect by director Burr Steers, as the filmmaker does a nice job of establishing the protagonist and his admittedly unusual predicament - with the movie's solemn, thoroughly deliberate sense of pacing perpetuating its unabashedly somber atmosphere. The oddball nature of the premise is, as a result, initially not as problematic as one might've feared, yet there does reach a point at which certain elements within Craig Pearce and Lewis Colick's screenplay just become a little too difficult to comfortably swallow (ie Sam isn't the only ghost that Charlie is able to communicate with). It consequently goes without saying that despite the film's positive attributes (ie Efron's striking, entertaining performance), Charlie St. Cloud ultimately does succumb to the rather ludicrous nature of its setup - with the slow pace only highlighting the serious deficiencies with the script. The end result is a sporadically watchable yet pervasively uneven teen-oriented drama that, in the final analysis, just doesn't work, which is a shame, really, given that Efron really is quite good here.

out of

Teenage Paparazzo (October 3/10)

Adrian Grenier's followup to 2002's Shot in the Dark, Teenage Paparazzo follows the Entourage actor as he befriends (and becomes a mentor to) an unusual member of the paparazzi - a 14-year-old named Austin Visschedyk. Grenier initially does a superb job of offering up an entertaining, surprisingly informative look at the relationship between celebrities and the paparazzi, as the filmmaker initially avoids the trappings that certain other documentarians tend to fall into by staying on target for much of the movie's opening hour. The movie blends Visschedyk's exploits with a history of the paparazzi quite well, and it's also worth noting that the film boasts a number of unexpectedly hilarious exchanges and sound bites (Visschedyk hates the term "stalkerazzi" yet admits that photographers "do wait outside [a celebrity's] house and follow them where they go.") The chemistry between Grenier and Visschedyk undoubtedly plays a big role in the movie's success, as Grenier does come to view himself as a father figure to the teenager - although, as inevitably becomes clear, it's this aspect of the proceedings that ultimately results in a less-than-enthralling final half hour. Grenier's efforts at steering Visschedyk towards a career as a photojournalist - coupled with the adolescent's growing celebrity (which, naturally, goes to his head) - is simply not all that interesting, and it does come to feel like the filmmaker is looking for filler to justify the movie's feature-length running time. Still, Teenage Paparazzo otherwise comes off as a well made and sporadically fascinating documentary that benefits from the input from several of Grenier's celebrity friends (including Alec Baldwin, who equates the experience of being photographed by the paparazzi with having "the Empire State Building shoved up your ass, one brick at a time.")

out of

The Lottery (October 5/10)

An intriguing if uneven documentary, The Lottery takes a broad look at the American public school system - with a specific emphasis on the rise of charter schools within New York City. (The film's title refers to an annual lottery that's held to select which students will be lucky enough to attend one of the few charter academies within the five boroughs.) There's little doubt that The Lottery does take a while to get going, as filmmaker Madeleine Sackler effectively dives right into the nuts and bolts of the situation - which ensures that the opening half hour does tend to feel a little dryer than one might have liked. It's only as Sackler introduces four families that are competing for a spot within a handful of charter schools that The Lottery starts to become more than just an overly specific primer into the States' public education system, although there's no denying that the director occasionally delves just a little too deeply into the issue (with the stretch detailing a contentious meeting both for and against a new charter school undoubtedly the most obvious example of this). The inclusion of a few surprisingly poignant moments, including an interview with one of the kids' jailed father, buoys the viewer's interest through the sporadically repetitive midsection, which ultimately cements The Lottery's place as a watchable piece of work that will surely fare best among viewers with an up-close-and-personal connection to the material.

out of

Please Remove Your Shoes (October 8/10)

Please Remove Your Shoes is a pervasively underwhelming documentary detailing the various deficiencies within airline security, as filmmaker Rob DelGaudio speaks to many of the folks behind the scenes in his efforts at understanding just how an event like 9/11 could have happened. It's certainly a noble (and promising) concept for a non-fiction endeavor, yet DelGaudio is never, at any point, able to justify the movie's feature-length running time. This is despite the presence of several genuinely compelling tidbits, including the revelation that police received a phone call warning of an explosive on a plane in the weeks leading up to the infamous Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie. Such instances of intriguing trivia prove to be all-too-rare within the proceedings, however, as DelGaudio generally employs a dry, hopelessly talky sensibility that results in an atmosphere akin to a news segment (albeit one that goes on for over an hour and a half rather than five minutes). The film's lack of an entry point for ordinary viewers undoubtedly exacerbates its myriad of problems, and it's impossible not to walk away from Please Remove Your Shoes assuming that it's been designed to appeal solely to insiders or those viewers with a keen interest in this sort of thing. The final straw comes with a long stretch near the end in which DelGaudio spends an interminable amount of time detailing suspicious activity on a particular post 9/11 flight, which effectively cements Please Remove Your Shoes' place as an aggressively misguided bit of documentary filmmaking.

out of

Devil (October 13/10)

From producer M. Night Shyamalan comes this decidedly high-concept thriller revolving around a quintet of strangers who find themselves trapped in an elevator, with complications ensuing as it becomes increasingly clear that one of the five is, in fact, the devil. Director John Erick Dowdle effectively infuses the proceedings with an impressively foreboding atmosphere right from the get-go, with the sinister opening credits establishing an ominous vibe that's perpetuated by the rather shady nature of the central characters (ie it's fairly obvious that each one of these people is hiding something). And while the stuff in the elevator is kind of engaging (albeit in a markedly hackneyed, been-there-done-that sort of way), there's little doubt that, ironically enough, the movie fares best when focused on the exploits of the various folks dealing with the situation on the outside. (Of course, this has a lot to do with the presence of several underrated character actors within the periphery cast - including Matt Craven, Chris Messina, and Jacob Vargas.) The movie's watchable yet far-from-engrossing vibe persists right up until the reveal of Satan's true identity, after which point Devil becomes far a more engrossing and suspenseful piece of work than one might have anticipated - which cements Devil's place as a better-than-average thriller that's ultimately quite a bit more effective than Shyamalan's last few directorial efforts.

out of

Maniac (October 20/10)

From director William Lustig comes this sporadically compelling yet pervasively unwatchable thriller revolving around a psychopath (Joe Spinell's Frank Zito) who spends all of his time either talking to his dead mother or murdering young women, with the movie's plotless atmosphere exacerbated by Lustig's reliance on visuals of an astonishingly low-rent nature. It's clear right from the outset, however, that Spinell is certainly the right choice for this character, as the actor manages to climb into Frank's skin to a degree that's nothing short of astonishing. Spinell's strong performance is continually rendered moot by his own seriously underwhelming screenplay, as the film boasts far too many sequences in which Frank rambles on nonsensically within the confines of his almost comically seedy apartment. It's incredibly tiresome stuff that only grows more and more problematic as the movie progresses, as one can't help but wonder just what's meant to be compelling about all of this. And although Lustig has admittedly sprinkled the proceedings with a handful of unexpectedly engrossing sequences - ie Frank stalks a terrified nurse through a grungy subway station - Maniac is an underwhelming, uninvolving product of its time that simply possesses no relevance in 2010. (You've gotta love Tom Savini's special effects work, though, with the slow-motion shotgun blast to the face that comes midway through undoubtedly a highlight.)

out of

Catfish (October 20/10)

Catfish is an unusual, uneven documentary that often feels much longer than it needs to be, yet there's no denying that filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have infused the movie with a number of striking sequences and an (almost) consistently intriguing structure. The film essentially follows New York-based photographer Yaniv Schulman as he befriends a talented little girl over the internet, with his relationship with the kid eventually leading to a cyber-romance with her older sister. The early part of Catfish revolves almost entirely around Yaniv's long-distance relationship with this mysterious figure, and there's little doubt that its Yaniv's impressively boundless enthusiasm that sustains the viewer's interest during this stretch (ie he's just so likeable). The film improves considerably once it becomes clear that all is not quite right with Yaniv's internet buddies, with the mystery surrounding the situation resulting in a midsection that's often far more enthralling and suspenseful than one might've anticipated. (This is especially true of an impressively tense sequence in which Yaniv and the filmmakers head to his supposed girlfriend's farm in the middle of the night.) It's just as clear, however, that the whole thing deflates rather demonstrably once the situation is made clear, as the disappointingly conventional and straight-forward nature of the movie's final half hour feels as though it'd be more at home within a segment on 20/20 - which unfortunately ensures that Catfish ultimately limps to its rather inevitable conclusion.

out of

Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (October 29/10)

This four hour (!) documentary covers the making of each film in the Nightmare on Elm Street saga, starting with Wes Craven's 1984 original and finishing with the filmmaker's 1994 finale (Wes Craven's New Nightmare) - with copious amounts of behind-the-scenes footage augmented by interviews with virtually all of the players involved (including Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, and Craven himself). Although it's clear that the movie has been designed to appeal primarily to fans of the series, there's little doubt that Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy is often far more intriguing and compelling than the films that it's actually documenting - as filmmakers Daniel Farrands and Andrew Kasch, who have broken the movie down into separate sections for each of the installments (and also for the short-lived television series), effectively answer each and every question that one might have had about the franchise. Of course, it certainly doesn't hurt that Farrands and Kasch have managed to elicit some impressively honest answers and stories out of their dozens of subjects - with such highlights as Robert Englund's admission that he improvised the series' best one-liner (Dream Warriors' "welcome to prime time, bitch!") and the revelation that Renny Harlin wanted Dream Master actress Toy Newkirk to dub her lines because she didn't sound "black" enough. And although the film undoubtedly does demand several breaks along the way - four hours is just too long of a sit for any movie - Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy is an interesting, sporadically fascinating documentary that should leave Elm Street enthusiasts more than satisfied.

out of

© David Nusair