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Mini Reviews (November 2009)

Michael Jackson's This Is It, The Collector, Vice Versa, Land of the Lost, Wild Child, The Stepfather

Michael Jackson's This Is It (November 2/09)

Though adversely affected by the inherently low-rent nature of its footage, Michael Jackson's This Is It primarily comes off as an intriguing look behind the scenes at Jackson's attempts at staging a series of farewell shows - which, had he not died suddenly last June, would have clearly set a new standard for expensive, gleefully over-the-top concert experiences. It's clear right from the outset that Jackson and his myriad of collaborators - including director Kenny Ortega - were looking to put on a show of almost staggering proportions, with the ongoing efforts of the show's dancers, carpenters, lighting technicians, and the like at bringing the King of Pop's grandiose vision to life augmented by rehearsal footage that's generally far more compelling than it has any right to be (and it subsequently goes without saying that Jackson's inherently charismatic screen presence often compensates for the jittery, shot-on-the-fly visuals). As fascinating as the backstage stuff is, however, there's little doubt that it's the music that ultimately justifies Michael Jackson's This Is It's existence and ensures that the film remains a must for fans of the deceased singer - as Jackson performs many of the tunes with which he's closely associated, including "Thriller," "Billie Jean," and "Black or White." It's also worth noting that the emphasis on Jackson's hands-on approach to the production provides a rare glimpse into his closely-guarded public persona, which, when coupled with the opportunity to hear these classic songs one last time, cements the movie's place as a fitting swan song for one of the music industry's most notorious and downright tragic figures.

out of

The Collector (November 5/09)

The directorial debut of Saw screenwriter Marcus Dunstan, The Collector follows handyman/jewel thief Arkin (Josh Stewart) as he surreptitiously enters a client's home intending to rob it - with his efforts thwarted almost immediately as it becomes clear that a masked maniac is holding said client and his family hostage and has rigged the premises with a series of brutal traps. Dunstan - along with cinematographer Brandon Cox - has infused The Collector with a grainy, high-contrast visual sensibility that effectively sets the stage for a gritty and downright brutal horror-movie endeavor, although it's just as clear that one's efforts at embracing the unapologetically spare storyline are initially stymied by a pace that's perhaps just a little too deliberate for its own good (ie one can't help but grow impatient for something to happen already). It's only as Arkin comes to the slow but steady realization that he's in the company of a madman that The Collector finally becomes more than just a slick exercise in style, with the film's cat-and-mouse midsection rife with unexpectedly tense sequences and interludes (ie the family's teenage daughter arrives home with her boyfriend in tow). There's little doubt that the Saw-esque nature of the various traps (and Dunstan's willingness to employ them to appreciatively grisly effect) plays a significant role in sustaining the viewer's interest, and while Dunstan occasionally does go just a little too far in terms of unpleasantness (ie an unwatchable bit of business involving the family cat), The Collector is by and large an innovative, thoroughly compelling horror effort that's obviously been designed to appeal primarily to hardcore gorehounds.

out of

Vice Versa (November 13/09)

An inoffensively entertaining '80s comedy, Vice Versa follows harried department-store executive Marshall Seymour (Judge Reinhold) as he inadvertently switches bodies with his adolescent son (Fred Savage's Charlie) after coming into contact with a mysterious skull. Aside from the expected problems associated with the exchange - ie Marshall must contend with several of his son's bullies - Marshall and Charlie are also forced to dodge the advances of two comically inept smugglers (Swoosie Kurtz's Tina and David Proval's Turk) who are determined to retrieve the aforementioned skull. It's an admittedly irresistible premise that's initially employed to disappointingly middling effect by filmmaker Brian Gilbert, as the film boasts an opening half hour that's hardly as compelling as one might've hoped - with the surprisingly low-rent visuals and production values effectively exacerbating the movie's less-than-enthralling atmosphere. It's only as Marshall and Charlie trade places that Vice Versa becomes the overtly (and unapologetically) wacky piece of work one might've expected, as the emphasis is consistently placed on the two characters' fish-out-of-water high jinks within their respective environs (ie Charlie stages an impromptu rock concert within the music section of his father's department store, while Marshall explains away the antisocial behavior of a classmate by noting that "he's a depressing indictment of our educational system.") And although Savage is quite good here, there's little doubt that Reinhold's gleefully over-the-top work stands as Vice Versa's most entertaining attribute - with the actor's go-for-broke turn effectively smoothing over the film's various problems and ultimately cementing its place as an agreeable (yet forgettable) entry within the body-switching genre.

out of

Land of the Lost (November 14/09)

Based on the cult television series, Land of the Lost follows scientist Rick Marshall (Will Ferrell) as he and two stragglers (Anna Friel's Holly Cantrell and Danny McBride's Will Stanton) fend for their lives after taking a trip into an alternate universe. It's clear almost immediately that Land of the Lost has been geared solely towards adolescent boys, as the film boasts a pervasively puerile sensibility that's reflected in virtually all of its attributes - with the eye-rollingly over-the-top performances and emphasis on gross-out gags and jokes effectively perpetuating the atmosphere of excessive silliness. Director Brad Silberling's surprisingly inept visual choices inevitably exacerbate the movie's plethora of failings, with the filmmaker's head-scratching reliance on shaky camerawork resulting in an ostentatious, lamentably low-rent vibe that's compounded by some seriously underwhelming special effects. The admittedly talent cast's ongoing efforts at wringing laughs out of Chris Henchy and Dennis McNicholas' stale, hopelessly meaningless screenplay fall uniformly flat, and there's little doubt that the scripters' obstinate refusal to even temporarily ground the proceedings in reality ensures that Land of the Lost ultimately feels more like a series of loosely-connected sketches than a full-fledged movie. It's consequently not surprising to note that the film inevitably establishes itself as one of the most interminable, desperately unfunny comedies to come around in quite some time, thus ensuring that even Ferrell's die-hard fans will find themselves struggling to find something worth embracing here.

out of

Wild Child (November 21/09)

Mildly entertaining and utterly innocuous, Wild Child follows wealthy Beverly Hills teen Poppy (Emma Roberts) as she's sent to a British boarding school after her father (Aidan Quinn's Gerry) grows tired of her self-indulgent antics - with the bulk of the proceedings subsequently revolving around Poppy's ongoing efforts at getting kicked out of the exclusive establishment. It's due primarily to Roberts' consistently affable work that Wild Child ultimately fares as well as it does, as the actress successfully manages to bring her exceedingly spoiled character to life without quite crossing the line into obnoxiousness (which is certainly no small feat, given the degree to which Poppy has been infused with narcissistic attributes). The pervasively predictable midsection is accordingly not as problematic as one might've expected, with the palpable chemistry between Poppy and her newfound friends (and enemies) generally compensating for the proliferation of less-than-innovative elements (ie a trying-on-clothes montage). The movie manages to sustain its agreeable vibe right up until around the one-hour mark, after which point the viewer is hit with barrage of woefully melodramatic plot twists that are exacerbated by Lucy Dahl's increasingly illogical script (ie Poppy, having made friends and struck up a tentative romance, is clearly enjoying herself yet she persists in her attempts at getting expelled). There's nevertheless little doubt that Wild Child remains a watchable endeavor that's often buoyed by Roberts' irresistibly enthusiastic work - with the pleasant atmosphere perpetuated by an impressive supporting cast that includes Aidan Quinn, Shirley Henderson, and Natasha Richardson.

out of

The Stepfather (November 23/09)

A remake of the 1987 thriller of the same name, The Stepfather follows the title character (Dylan Walsh's David Harris), a sociopath with a penchant for murdering families, as he attempts to weasel his way into the lives of a divorcée (Sela Ward's Susan) and her three children - with problems ensuing as Susan's teenage son (Penn Badgley's Michael) becomes increasingly suspicious of David's true motives. It's clear from the get-go that Walsh's unexpectedly compelling work plays a key role in cementing The Stepfather's early success, as the actor avoids the temptation to just mimic Terry O'Quinn's take on the semi-iconic character and instead delivers an impressively captivating performance that initially compensates for the movie's less-than-fresh atmosphere. There inevitably reaches a point, however, wherein the film begins to demonstrably spin its wheels, with the aggressively uneventful midsection - in which Michael worries that his new stepfather is up to no good - slowly but surely infusing the proceedings with a stagnant, downright interminable sort of vibe. Without the aid of any subplots or diversions, The Stepfather is forced to rely on Michael's ongoing (and thoroughly tedious) efforts at confirming David's guilt to propel the narrative forward and it's not surprising to note that the film consequently spirals into irrelevance with disconcerting expediency. And although the film admittedly does recover for a relatively thrilling finale, it's ultimately impossible to label The Stepfather as anything more than yet another toothless and entirely needless horror-movie remake.

out of

© David Nusair