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Mini Reviews (June 2012)

Hysteria, 388 Arletta Avenue, Chain Letter, Brave

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.

out of

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).

out of

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.

out of

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.

out of

© David Nusair