Monthly Archives: March 2012

Martyrs (2008)

by Steve Habrat

Way back in 2008, when horror was still in its torture porn cycle, France contributed Martyrs to the orgy of depravity. While Martyrs is much more thought provoking than some of the other genre entries (Saw), at times you can tell it doesn’t have much more on its mind than skin crawling violence. After a nasty yet attention-grabbing opening sequence, Martyrs slowly begins falling apart right in front of our eyes as it begins to resemble Hostel with each passing second. The film does pull a last act twist that you won’t be expecting and that is where the wheels in your brain will start turning and an icy chill will consume your body. Yet I had a hard time with Martyrs because, being a French film, there is strong sense of superiority to the project, like it is under the impression that it is much smarter than it actually is. The problem is the questions it raises will only stick with you for a short while after the film has ended, and then everything dries up or fades away.

Martyrs starts off with a young girl, Lucie, fleeing a gloomy torture chamber, making a mad, whining dash for her life. Lucie is picked up by authorities and then placed in the care of an orphanage where she meets another young girl named Anna, who she becomes extremely close with. Lucie also finds herself suffering from strange sightings of a horribly scarred girl who continuously torments her. Speeding ahead fifteen years, Lucie shows up at the door of a seemingly normal family and when the mother opens the door to greet Lucie, she opens fire on the family with a double barrel shotgun. After butchering the whole family, Lucie (Played by Mylene Jampanoi) makes a call to Anna (Played by Morjana Alaoui) and proceeds to tell her that she thinks she found the people who tortured her. Anna shows up to help Lucie clean up the gory messy, but the terrifying hallucinations become worse for Lucie and there may be more secrets that the family was hiding, including more victims and ties to a sinister organization who sets their sights on young women.

Without giving too much away, Martyrs becomes enamored with the idea of what lies beyond death, an existential proposal that will spark conversation but the film is only half concerned with it. Instead, director Pascal Laugier was more interested in his monster that plagues Lucie and how convincing the make-up work would be on his battered actors. Martyrs is a vile experience and is incredibly sadistic, and I’ll admit, I was impressed by how authentic the violence looked, but that is only half the battle. While I am admittedly a fan of hardcore cinema, I am a little tougher on torture porn because I feel that very little thought has actually gone into it. It’s very easy to gross people out and it seems like a cheap shot. Martyrs definitely feels like a cheap shot, a film that lacks barely a suspenseful moment but is just constantly disgusting and cringe inducing. The monster that follows Lucie is effective here and there, but that largely disappears by the middle of the film.

The film begins with a bang, opening with Lucie’s rampage that is upsetting only because we simply do not know why she is doing this to this seemingly normal family. When the actions on screen are suspended in air without showing the strings, Martyrs is a lot more interesting than the metallic second half of the film that resembles a stainless steel Hostel. I found Jampanoi’s Lucie to be an alluring character despite her vengeful nature. She outshines Alaoui, who finds herself saddled with portraying a character that never fully grabs us. For her run on the screen, Lucie is a car wreck we just can’t stop watching. She runs around shrieking in terror of the monster that likes to stalk her, yet it never becomes the cliché girl in a bad horror movie. Jampanoi’s eyes all do a lot of acting themselves, as they often times seem almost black, possessed by rage and anger for what has been done to her. She is also gripped by guilt, which adds another interesting layer of complexity to her. The scene where she kneels over the dead body of one of her victims and breaks down is a standout scene.

The finale of Martyrs will leave viewers with quite a bit to discuss. On one hand, the macabre climax seems superfluous and senseless but when all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, it is a bit unsettling, especially when the motivations of the antagonists are revealed. When the focus shifts from Lucie to Anna, the film becomes a bit of a bore even though it desperately tries to hold us with its consistently horrifying violence. Maybe if I wasn’t so desensitized by previous torture porn offerings, Martyrs may have had more of an impact on me as clearly we are supposed to be sickened by it. When Martyrs stays on course, with its sights set on it’s main focus, the film makes for a brainy horror film but when it takes a detour into the waters of corn syrup and red food coloring, Martyrs becomes a tedious exercise in filmmaking.

Grade: C+

Martyrs is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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Spider-Man 3 (2007)

by Corinne Rizzo

To break third person perspective is to break that fourth wall, to bring to light the idea that the reviewer is not just speaking on the audience’s behalf, but on the behalf of a more biased or more personal concern with a particular film. To break third person perspective goes against all the rules of formal thesis and proper reporting. Breaking third person perspective is necessary here though, as I want to talk to you about James Franco, or as Peter Parker knows him, Harry Osborne.

The choice for casting a character like Harry Osborne could have been a fatal one. The slightest personality trait off, and the whole character is thrown. Harry plays an integral part in the three films and in the legacy of Spider-Man in general, as he is not only the source of Spidey’s eternal struggle with himself (Harry also loves MJ, Harry never has to work for what he wants, Harry has perfect vision, Harry had a psychopath father whom Spidey had to kill, etc.) and without Harry, Spider-Man would have no sense of himself. A reader or viewer would never be able to relate to Peter Parker without a guy like Harry, an outcast but for reasons that are untouchable rather than socially awkward.

The third installment of the Spider-Man trilogy is one of many comparisons, which is why bringing Harry’s character under the microscope was a task worth undertaking. One could argue that there was too much happening in the final film. One could debate whether New Goblin was ever really a threat to Spider-Man. The obvious comparisons involved with knowing that this is the last in a series are limitless, but here is one that got me: We (the collective audience and the physical cast of the film) go from having Willem Dafoe, James Franco, Alfred Molina and Thomas Hayden Church, to Topher Grace as venom. In honest defense of Mr. Grace, the only time I ever think of Thomas Hayden Church is when I think of Sandman, but that is not necessarily a defense when you consider all I ever think of when I hear Topher Grace is Eric from That 70’s Show.

All of this unfair and biased and yes, I understand, but Willem Dafoe needs no defense. James Franco as Harry Osborne, this very specific and integral image in the saga, passes every test and even goes beyond expectations for someone who has a knack for Spidey. Alfred Molina? Who else was supposed to play Doc Ock? And let me tell you that Sandman wasn’t even on my radar so that was just a bonus.

The question even arises in this case, was Venom necessary? Well, I believe he was necessary to the film. He is a dark and twisty character that gave the film edge and so I would even go as far as saying that Sandman was unnecessary, but the casting for what harkens to Spider-Man’s alter ego—Topher Grace?

There is a lot happening in Spider-Man 3—three whole villains. Or two and a half when you consider Harry changed his mind half way through. The list of things to keep track of is tremendous for watching a film that is released as a summer hit and the film seems to rely on some master editing that is supposed to seamlessly take us from one idea to the next—though that master editing left something to be desired. I have never witnessed a selection of scenes quilted together so aimlessly. It was almost as though in an attempt to avoid a fourth episode, there was some agreement to fit everything into the third. That sort of editing is evident in all three films though hadn’t made me say “What the fuck?” until this one.

To his credit, Raimi’s Venom was eerie and unrelenting. Sandman seemed an afterthought in comparison, though a man made of sand doesn’t exactly cause one to shudder. In my humble opinion though, that is where Raimi should have stepped up. Two unrelenting and ridiculous characters could have made up for casting Topher Grace, but Sandman seems to fall to the wayside once Venom latches to Grace’s character, though not for the acting skills, but simply for the doom Venom inspires.

McGuire’s opposite could have been female for all it mattered. Actually, that would have been radical and even creepier. Maybe even a threat to Mary Jane.

It goes without saying that the thinner you spread a plot, the more holes you are going to have to patch and Spider-Man 3 just might have been a stretch. Harry Osborne carries the film with his ability to reinstate the hope and good that all super-hero’s strive to belay and James Franco is just the right class of man to carry a film when it’s on its back. While Peter is traipsing around doing theatrical dance numbers, the plot gets lost and Harry is there to remind the viewers of what is important. When faced with the challenge that is Sandman, it should be a no brainer for Spidey to defeat him and it should have been a no brainer for Raimi to either step it up or leave him out. And Topher Grace just bothers me—he must have a good agent.

Grade: C-

Spider-Man 3 is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

For more from Corinne, check out her new website the ish.

Spider-Man 2 (2004)

by Corinne Rizzo

If the first installment of the Spider-Man trilogy didn’t quite drive home the idea that Sam Raimi can and should always create a villain, Spider-Man 2 should be able to convince any audience that Raimi is essentially the king of all that is evil.

Here in the second installment, the viewer meets Raimi’s portrait of Doc Ock, or Doctor Octavius—a man that shares a love of science with Peter Parker as well as the capacity for good and for hope. For the most part though, Octavius reins darkness over the film as he attempts to show investors his latest energy experiment, harnessing a man made fusion, similar to the effects of the sun. When all is said and done and the experiment is near a successful exhibition, the villain can’t exist unless something goes wrong and surely it goes wrong in every possible way.

With Peter Parker foreshadowing the idea that the good doctor could blow the entire city to smithereens if the procedure isn’t handled correctly, Octavius loses control of the fusion experiment and is left with the death of innocent spectators, and a terrible mutation leaving him and the doctors who are trying to save him in a predicament they’ve never encountered.

Though it is the scene that follows the downfall of the experiment that makes the film a signature Raimi film and that scene is one of operating rooms, slain nurses and doctors, loads of horrific screaming and operational power tools buzzing about, blood splatters. Four extra limbs, mechanical, maniacal. The scene is straight out of a horror film and for a minute, the viewer is no longer watching a summer blockbuster, but a suspenseful and graphic thriller.

In fact, the sequel in this trilogy is probably the best out of the three films and one could say that it’s Raimi’s style to not only make the horror film, but make the sequel to the horror film one debatably superior.

Parker finds his own struggles in this sequel and becomes even more tortured than last the viewer received him. The charade with M.J. is on-going and is almost too belabored. For the sake of the audience, it can be assumed that Raimi made the choice to cut the romance dance short and just get the two kids in love and talking marriage already, which makes Spidey happy, which makes Spidey possible. All things the audience responds to.

Meanwhile, the darkness inside of Harry Osborne rises and becomes just another threat to Spidey, after Spidey killed his best friend’s father. No longer are the headlines making things rough for Spider-Man, it seems as if his competition is multiplying as well. Will the conclusion to the three films be a villain paradise?

Grade: A-

Spider-Man 2 is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

For more from Corinne, check out her new website the ish.

Spider-Man (2002)

by Corinne Rizzo

If ever a man could give a modest superhero the edge of one who not only slays science fiction-y comic book villains but ones who truly threaten our psychologically modern society, Sam Raimi would be that man.  In his first attempt at a feel good blockbusting summer flick, Raimi takes an undertortured and understated high schooler turned college student and turns that character not only into our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, but a superhero of classic proportions. Raimi shows the story of Peter Parker, not by using the drama of his own life, but the drama involved with the villain, which any viewer or Raimi fan can tell, is the character type he seems most comfortable with creating.

Though Raimi does forge Spider-Man’s character without the drama of Uncle Ben and Aunt May, the Mary Jane saga or the idea that Peter and his best friend are as estranged as long lost cousins, Raimi does seem to pile the heaviest load of drama on to the villain in the first of the three Spider-Man films.

In the first installment, Raimi’s villain of choice is the Green Goblin, played by Willem Dafoe. Dafoe is a surprising choice for such a summer blockbuster, as he can be truly menacing in appearance while also offering a cynical yet terrifying psychological aspect to his characters. Dafoe does this with the Green Goblin as he illustrates how Norman Osborne is so bent on the results of his laboratory, that he tests his latest chemical weapon on himself, spawning the Green Goblin’s character.

But what sets apart the development of this villain is the style with which Raimi exposes the viewer to the grit and horror involved with these changes. While Peter Parker simply gets bitten by a spider and gets a bit of a fever, the villain is clearly shown to the audience while in the midst of change. Locking himself in a glass chamber and exposing himself to a gas that has been shown to increase violence and aggravation in rational men, Osborne seizes and foams at the mouth, his eyes roll back into his head when his assistant attempts to stop the experiment, Osborne murders him almost immediately. Then in a fit of exhaustion, Osborne falls asleep and awakes with no memory of the events and experiences a sort of schizophrenia, a divide within his personalities of ration and greed. Dafoe’s face becomes even more upturned and menacing, his voice just a bit more terrifying and now rounded out by a villainous laugh.

Raimi does well to ensure a wholesome superhero like Spider-Man doesn’t become a film about a boy scout trying to better his city and save his girlfriend from evil-doers, by focusing on the villain, which is where the most creativity can be found in this film and the subsequent Spider-Man films. Though here in the first film, it is as if Raimi’s imagination is too much for the practical applications available to him at the time.

The film, printed in 2002, already looks its age. At a time when a lot of great strides were being made in CGI film editing, the magic was in not indistinguishable from reality. Many scenes appeared as though one could almost see the green screen in use, as though no wool was being pulled over the viewer’s eyes. This gives the film a super-campy effect, but with no real sense of itself.

While Raimi does an excellent job of keeping the action and fear alive in the film, he attempts to cover too much ground, which is unfortunately a common situation when dealing with the presumed massive exposure of a character only truly familiar with comic hero buffs. The attempts to tell back story, while creating the current story of Ben becoming a victim of a car-jacking and Aunt May being lonely and warm hearted, don’t really come alive, as the viewer might feel a sense of being rushed into knowing them—in other words, Peter Parker’s drama doesn’t seem as interesting and it is because so much is being introduced at once and so rapidly that one loses sight of who is important and why the audience should care.

Ultimately, Raimi wins the affection of the viewer by trusting him to build a truly terrifying and psychologically thrilling villain and surrounding circumstances. By using his talents for creating fear and anxiety with his typical scary movie formula, Raimi successfully turns an underwhelming, seemingly too classic for true nail biting potential, into an edge of your seat thriller that at the very least, leaves you open to a sequel.

Grade: B-

Spider-Man is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

For more from Corinne, check out her new website the ish.

Drag Me To Hell (2009)

by Steve Habrat

If Sam Raimi failed to properly mesh campy humor with horror in Evil Dead II, he more than gets it right with 2009’s superb horror outing Drag Me To Hell. It was nice to see Raimi return to horror, a genre he happens to do quite well, after his trio of big budget Spider-Man films that seemed to be wearing out by the third installment. Scaled back and armed with a smaller scope, Raimi’s return to the genre is triumphant, as he makes a film that is bursting with sheer terror all while retaining an old school aura. It helps that he uses the Universal Studios logo from the 1980’s and uses a retro looking Ghost House logo to begin the whole experience. Then, Raimi dives head first into a bottomless pit of body fluids and demonic torture, filling his frames with tributes to his Evil Dead series and putting his star Allison Lohman through a truly arduous experience that had to have left her covered from head to toe in bruises. I can only imagine what the stunt double looked like after the shoot was complete.

Drag Me To Hell introduces us to bank loan officer Christine Brown (Played by Allison Lohman), a sweet girl who seems to have everything going for her. She is up for a promotion at work, favored by her boss Jim Jacks (Played by David Paymer), and is in a relationship with successful young professor Clay Dalton (Played by Justin Long), who also happens to come from money. It doesn’t appear that Christine has a nasty bone in her body until she has to put up with her competition at work, the kiss-ass Stu Rubin (Played by Reggie Lee), who is also trying to snag the coveted promotion that Christine so desperately wants. That nasty bone also pops up when an elderly woman named Sylvia Ganush (Played by Lorna Raver) shows up at her desk hacking phlegm into a handkerchief and begging for a third extension on her mortgage payments. To prove herself worthy for the promotion, Christine denies Sylvia another extension, meaning that Sylvia will loose her home. Sylvia unleashes a violent attack on Christine and then proceeds to put the curse of the Lamia on Christine, meaning she will be ferociously tormented for three days by a demonic force and on the third day will be drug to the fiery depths of Hell.

After the sweeping Hollywood productions that were the Spider-Man films, Raimi once again seems back at home with a smaller film. Drag Me To Hell is filled with techniques that he applied so skillfully in 1981’s The Evil Dead. Raimi resorts to his old restrained moments that are broken by tantrums of horror that are maxed out. Every demonic attack in Drag Me To Hell is presented as a grand finale, making the audience ask, “What can Raimi possible do to this poor girl by the end?” It turns out, quite a lot, and you better believe he comes armed with a final second twist that is wickedly delicious. It’s also quite coincidental that Raimi sets his sights to demonic haunting and loose possession after swinging around New York with your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. He terrorizes Christine much like he did Ash in The Evil Dead, Christine always by herself when the Lamia lashes out against her, usually resulting in Christine being knock around a room or terrorized by guttural growls and clanking, mocking inanimate objects. I don’t want to ruin all the fun in spotting all the references to The Evil Dead in Drag Me To Hell, but during a sequence where Christine enters a shed in her backyard, keep an eye out for a very cool nod to his masterpiece.

Much like Bruce Campbell in The Evil Dead, Allison Lohman is up for the beating that Raimi dishes out, making her a worthy successor to Ash. Christine retains the glowing persona that Ash had at the beginning of both The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II, a seemingly sincere person who is always trying to do the right thing. Yet when she cuts someone down to get ahead, she faces forces beyond her comprehension. She barely stands a chance to overcome the relentless Lamia. It helps that with a B-movie premise such as this; the actors are all game to approach the material on the material’s terms. No one here is going for Oscar gold, which actually makes everything more fun than it already is. Long is having a blast as a concerned boyfriend who is skeptical of everything happening to Christine. Raver’s Sylvia is sublimely hellish, popping up like a rotten jack-in-the-box to rip out a handful of Christine’s blonde hair. Lee is hysterical as the kiss-ass Stu and I would have loved to see more of him. Paymer plays his role straight, a bit left out of the schlocky events, although he does get a good one-liner when he is showered with blood spraying from Christine’s nose. Dileep Rao shows up as an overly mysterious fortune teller and Adriana Barraza shows up as a damaged medium that does battle with the wicked beast that is the Lamia, a sequence that is the standout of a film that is packed from beginning to end with standout moments.

A smart burst of nostalgia from a man that helped shape the horror genre way back in 1981, establishing himself as a low budget master of horror, Drag Me To Hell is bursting with moments that will have you chewing your fingernails clean off. He crams his frames with deranged special effects that are both unspeakable and merrily creepy. It was also nice to see Raimi trade his gallons of blood and guts in for gallons of pus, vomit, and phlegm, all which are sprayed manically on the audience. Drag Me To Hell is truly awesome because Raimi finally understands how to mix black humor with drippy horror, making the moments that he wants to be creepy sequences that reduce us to quivering piles of flesh and bone. It’s evenly balanced unlike the slapstick heavy Evil Dead II, which was more concerned with the chuckles rather than the teeth chattering. Of all the recent horror films that are either comatose remakes or uninspired garbage, Drag Me To Hell ranks as one of the best horror films of recent years, wetting our appetite for more horror from Raimi, a living legend. Sometimes it takes a living legend to show these new kids how it is done and Drag Me To Hell schools the new school of horror.

Grade: A-

Drag Me To Hell is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Hunger Games (2012)

by Jamie Matty

“The book was better,” is our most common response to page-to-screen adaptations, and yet, one that I couldn’t honestly say as I left the theater this Friday. It’s rare that a film surpasses the novel it was based upon; Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games does just that. For those of you who haven’t read the novels, here’s a quick synopsis: Sometime in a dystopian future, a country called Panem stands where the USA used to be. A lavishly totalitarian capitol city rules over and systematically abuses 12 districts that generate the resources it needs to sustain its hedonism. As a reminder that rebellion is futile, two children are annually selected from each district to compete in the Hunger Games, a nationally-televised tournament in which the contestants fight to the death until only one victor remains.  Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) sizzles as Katniss, the brave huntress from District 12 who volunteers to compete in the Games in her little sister’s stead.

In the mix we have a delightful ensemble cast: Josh Hutcherson (The Kids Are Alright) and Liam Hemsworth (Some Terrible Nicholas Sparks Movie) star as Katniss’s potential love interests; Woody Harrelson (Cheers) and Lenny Kravitz (American Woman?) serve respectively as her lovably alcoholic trainer and sympathetic personal stylist.  Finally, Elizabeth Banks is unforgettably frightening as a zombiefied Marie Antoinette (a.k.a. Effie Trinket, Katniss’ PR manager).

Though Lawrence seems to have more chemistry with Kravitz than her pre-pubescent male opposites (and who can blame her?), Hutcherson’s Peeta is charming and likable. The film’s main disappointments come from its costumes, which look cheap and gaudy (I had hoped for avant-garde and futuristic), and from Hemsworth’s stiff and unconvincing Gale. Additionally, while I had hoped for more raw violence, jerky cinematography keeps the fight sequences purposely blurred and within its PG-13 boundaries.

For viewers who loved the novel, this film won’t disappoint. Where Collins’ prose drags, the movie makes up for it in color, emotion, and crisp dialogue.  Additionally, the “Marxism and postcolonialism for kids” messages come through neatly without having to deal with Katniss’ annoying interiority.

Exciting, intriguing, and 40 billion times better than the drippy abortions that the Twilight franchise keeps pumping out, Hunger Games is a solid winner for Spring’s Best Blockbuster.

Grade: A-

21 Jump Street (2012)

by Steve Habrat

How good it is to have the buddy cop movie back in action, brushing off the cobwebs that have formed over the tired genre all these years. Maybe it’s the odd couple pairing of funny guy Jonah Hill and chiseled Channing Tatum that gives the buddy cop genre fresh life and sends 21 Jump Street to soaring heights that I would have never thought possible! This revamped take on the 80’s television series gorges on pop culture references and classic action flicks all while leaving its own mark with its raunchy, rambunctious personality. At this party, anything goes, ranging from perfectly placed cameos, high speed action, and more toilet humor than you can shake a shot off penis at! 21 Jump Street’s keep-the-party-going mentality does get a bit exhausting at a few points, but the fatigue is quickly shaken by the uncertainty over what the film will throw at us next.

21 Jump Street picks up in 2005 where we meet nerdy Schmidt (Played by Jonah Hill), who looks like a slouchy Eminem without the rage and the jock bully Jenko (Played by Channing Tatum) as they near the end of their high school careers. Jenko can’t keep his grades up and therefore can’t attend the school prom. Schmidt, meanwhile, is trying to work up the nerve to ask the girl of his dreams to the prom, only to be coldly shot down and laughed at. The film speeds ahead to present day, where Schmidt and Jenko are currently attending a police academy and earning their badges. The two bump into each other and strike up a friendship despite the fact that Jenko bullied Schmidt in high school. They aid each other through the police academy and finally earn their badges, but after botching a drug bust, they are sent to 21 Jump Street. It is here that they meet their new scowling boss Captain Dickson (Played by Ice Cube) and learn they are going undercover at a local high school to bust up a drug ring. The two begin trying to infiltrate the group of kids they believe to be dealing the drugs, but they soon find themselves losing sight of their mission and get caught up reliving their glory days.

There is plenty of Hill’s trademark off-the-cuff adlibs to keep the audience in stitches through much of 21 Jump Street and the surprisingly funny Tatum matches Hill every step of the way. They are absolutely hysterical together watching their opposite personalities clash was a riot. Their chemistry keeps the audience giddy through much of the film and they are always making sure that you have a smile slapped across your face. It is clearly their show and everyone else makes sure that they don’t step on their toes, especially an insanely likable Ice Cube, who finally gets to release a few bellowing F-bombs that he has been bottling up inside while he has been starring in kiddie flicks. Then there is the supporting cast that is made up of Ellie Kemper as the tongue tied science teacher Ms. Giggs, who has the hots for Jenko, Nick Offerman as straight shooting Deputy Chief Hardy, Chris Parnell as ostentatious theater teacher Mr. Gordon, and Rob Riggle as the wacky motor-mouth coach Mr. Walters. The beauty is that every guest comedian gets a moment to shine, a chance to be center stage and leave his or her own mark in 21 Jump Street.

Much of 21 Jump Street plays around with the idea of reliving your glory days, when you didn’t have a care in the world. Schmidt suffers from never having taken a risk and never having much confidence in himself. When he goes undercover at the high school, he quickly works his way in with the cool kids and begins living the popular kid dream. Jenko, on the other hand, had way too much fun on his first run and now finds himself spending his evenings with the nerdy crowd, people he would have laughed at and tormented when he was in school. It is a knee slapping role reversal and it consistently works. Seeing Tatum play nerd is comedic gold but it is Hill who really turns up the funny, slowly finding himself infatuated with instant messenger and texting. He even gets a run at popular girl Molly (Played by Brie Larson), which adds a bubbly if a bit creepy romance aspect to the film.

Director’s Phil Lord and Chris Miller both keep 21 Jump Street zipping along making the finished product feel like a crazy party rather than a movie. It is ripe with nostalgia for rollicking action films and outrageously coarse teen comedies. They keep the film moving at a brisk pace, but at times, 21 Jump Street would hit a bump in the road that stalls the momentum the film naturally builds up. There are a few spots where the comedy isn’t as sharp as it was a few minutes earlier or even worse, a joke falls flat. Part of the problem is that both the directors and our leads fire off jokes so rapidly, it is hard to keep up and they begin getting lost in each other. This isn’t constant in 21 Jump Street and what a relief that is, but part of the problem may also lie in the fact that the film is a bit too long. An extended party sequence could have used a little trimming, as could a scene where Schmidt hangs out with teenage drug dealer Eric (Played by Dave Franco) at his home. But the film balances out with scenes like the uproariously funny car chase where our heroes, both wearing outrageous getups and zooming along in a driving school car, battle to be in control of the chase. It’s absolutely awesome, right down to the string of failed explosions that leave our heroes disappointed with each dud.

21 Jump Street may have a few dry spots but the film never looses our interest. You will be consistently entertained by it and you are left eager to see where they will take Schmidt and Jenko next, as I’m sure there will be another 21 Jump Street. The film also has an awesome cameo from original 21 Jump Street cast members Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise, a sequence that almost steals all the thunder from Hill and Tatum. Be warned that 21 Jump Street is a ball of energy that will leave you choking on its dust if you are unable to keep up with it. I can’t say that you will walk away a better person when the credits roll on 21 Jump Street, but like the morning after a good party, you will stumble away breathless and energized, a little drained and dazed, raring to do it all again. That, my friends, is never a bad thing.

Grade: B+

Cedar Rapids (2011)

by Steve Habrat

Comedian Ed Helms is such a talented guy, it’s hard not to just love him. The guy can sing, dance, play instruments, and do comedy with the best comedians out there. Take 2011’s Cedar Rapids, an uproariously funny comedy decked out in earth tones and Dockers. Cedar Rapids is Helms’s first starring comedy that truly does his talent justice and doesn’t demand he resort to a string of dick jokes like The Hangover asks of him. This project also proves that Helms can do the heavy lifting and lead a film from beginning to end. A much smaller film than his Hangover franchise, Cedar Rapids is a smaller and downright friendlier project that, yes, still has the same old bawdy jokes, but it is much more earnest and cordial, with direction that is much more mature and almost old fashioned. With Cedar Rapids, Helms comes out with his pride still in one piece and in the process, we learn that he has serious chemistry with man-baby John C. Reilly, leaving us begging for another project where the lax Reilly can torment the uptight Helms.

Cedar Rapids picks up the small, sleepy town of Brown Valley, Wisconsin, where we meet mild mannered Tim Lippe (Played by Helms), a sheltered and uptight insurance salesman. We learn that Tim has never really left his hometown and ventured out into the real world. He is pre-engaged to his 7th grade teacher Macy Vanderhei (Played by Sigourney Weaver) and he dedicates himself fully to the small insurance company he is employed at. When Lippe is given the opportunity to travel to Cedar Rapids to represent his company, Brownstar Insurance, at a regional conference and bring how the coveted Two Diamonds award, he graciously accepts and prepares for his trip to the big city. When he arrives in Cedar Rapids, he meets party animal Dean Ziegler (Played by Reilly), sexy red head Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Played by Anne Heche), and monotone Ronald Wilkes (Played by Isiah Whitlock Jr.). As Tim begins to lighten up and have fun, pressure from his boss Bill (Played by Stephen Root) begins getting the best of Tim, Bill demanding that Tim bring home the Two Diamond award any way he can. But Dean soon brings new information to Tim, sparking the group to suspect how honestly the Two Diamond awards are won.

The running joke of Cedar Rapids is the idea that Tim is an insurance salesman who refuses to take any major risks. He stays on a straight, safe path and if anything disrupts that order, Tim becomes a heaving, stammering mess who refuses to curse. He is always at odds with the nothing-is-off-limits Dean, who urges Tim to lighten up every chance he gets. When Tim does cut loose, he over compensates for living such a sheltered existence. He parties with a free-spirited prostitute Bree (Played by Alia Shawkat), doing hard drugs and heavy drinking. He also sparks up a romantic relationship with Joan, who has a secret of her own. Most importantly, Tim learns he has options, something that never revealed itself until he steps out of his safe zone, Brown Valley. It is also when Tim is shaken out of his naivety that the true colors of those around him sweep through their out shells.

Is it too much to ask that we get a sequel to Cedar Rapids? Every single member of the cast seems to be at home in their roles. You’ll die laughing when Dean makes Tim squirm out of discomfort. You’ll howl when Ronald babbles on about The Wire and does his impersonations. And how about Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat playing a bad girl prostitute with a wild streak? I wanted more of the romance between Tim and Joan, an onscreen couple who go together like peanut butter and jelly. It is always a treat when the director knows that their cast has great chemistry and he lets them go. Director Miguel Arteta allows his cats to guide the film, making his job almost effortless. Arteta does make Cedar Rapids into a bit of a celebration of the little guy. He mirrors this in his choice of the little guy Helms, who always seems pushed to the supporting role. Yet his film is a round of applause for the small, family owned business, the small, sheltered hero, and the rag tag group who has to pull together to prevail.

Even though Cedar Rapids is a smaller film, it never falls victim to the “Garden State syndrome”, ya know, the one where the film features crude illustrations for the opening credit sequence, there is Napoleon Dynamite style humor sprinkled throughout, and there are countless indie rock bands (The Shins, Belle & Sebastian, etc.) strumming their acoustic guitars on the soundtrack. While Cedar Rapids maintains its indie cred with the small scope and a slew of offbeat actors, you never feel like you need to be wearing horn rimmed glasses and skinny jeans to really appreciate it. You never get the sense that the film gives off the vibe that it is too cool to be viewed by you. In fact, Cedar Rapids in almost dorky! This makes falling for this film even easier, because it lacks all the glitz and glamour of a mainstream comedy. It really is the comedy next door.

Grade: B+

Cedar Rapids is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

by Steve Habrat

What an idea it was to produce a film about the making of the 1922 German silent horror film Nosferatu while infusing it with a fictional, supernatural side. E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire is a refined vampire drama that miraculously pulls off this incredibly wild and inspired idea. F.W. Murnau’s original masterpiece is a film that has carried with it rumors of the occult, largely stemming from Murnau’s producer and production designer Albin Grau, who was also an artist, architect, and occultist. Merhige takes these dark aspects of history and uses them to ask us, “What if Nosferatu was made with a REAL vampire?” But Merhige doesn’t stop here; he then transforms his vampire, Max Schreck, into a difficult and greedy star who pushes Murnau to the brink of madness, madness for perfection in his art. Infinitely better than his visually striking but infuriatingly cryptic debut Begotten, Shadow of the Vampire has all its major components (acting, writing, and direction) in synch, creating a clear, concise vision that we can actually wrap our heads around. It seems that maybe Merhige learned that accessible core meanings have just as big of an impression as petrifying images.

Shadow of the Vampire takes us right onto the set of F.W. Murnau’s (Played by John Malkovich) Nosferatu, an unauthorized film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Murnau and his crew have tweaked Stoker’s story ever so slightly, altering names and places so they can still make the film. He drags his crew to places like Slovakia and Poland for on-location shooting, snapping at any crewmember that dares try to make any suggestions or attempt at slightly altering his vision. As filming in Czechoslovakia commences, Murnau’s loyal producer Albin Grau (Played by Udo Kier) and his photographer Wolfgang Mueller (Played by Ronan Vibert) have to consistently keep the eccentric Murnau grounded in reality. Soon, his “method actor” Max Schreck (Played by Willem DaFoe), who is portraying the vampire Count Orlok in the film, arrives to the shoot in full make-up and consistently in character. Murnau tells his impressed crew that Schreck will only mingle with the crew when filming and that he will always appear in character. It turns out that Schreck is actually a real vampire, one who Murnau has made a sinister deal with. Muranu promises Schreck he can feed on their vampy leading actress Greta Schroder (Played by Catherine McCormack) when they are done filming only if Schreck completes his work on the film. As the shoot unfolds, Schreck becomes increasingly difficult, threatening the entire crew and the outcome of the project.

While Shadow of the Vampire sounds like a horror film, it is actually more of a character drama and is often times surprisingly humorous. There are a few chilling moments, mostly a handful of exchanges between Dafoe’s Schreck and Malkovich’s Murnau and the final fifteen minutes. In fact, I would classify the film as more of a drama rather than a full-blown horror film. Shadow of the Vampire is chock full of must-see performances, particularly Dafoe’s transforming turn as Schreck. Much like Klaus Kinski’s unglamorous turn as Count Dracula in Werner Herzog’s faultless 1979 remake Nosferatu the Vampyre, Dafoe makes his vampire a grotesque oddity that is so old he can’t quite recall how he was turned into a vampire. You will be bowled over every time he enters the screen, the highlight moment coming when he snatches a bat out of the air, bites its head off, and then sucks the blood out of it while his eye roll around his skull in ecstasy. Dafoe successfully mutates his character into more of a creature than a man and disappears behind bulging eyes, understated fangs, pasty fake skin, and pointing ears. He really does take on a life of his own.

It may be Dafoe’s show but Malkovich makes damn sure he is remembered long after the credits have rolled. You may emerge talking about Schreck but your conversation will turn to Malkovich’s Murnau. Malkovich makes his determined director out to be pompous and pretentious, demanding but bursting with vision that he can’t quite convey unless he points a camera at something. He is as much a method director as his “star” is a “method actor”, willing to stop at nothing to capture an unmatched realism within his film. He will sacrifice any and all of his crew to achieve this and make something that is remembered for years to come, even running himself into the ground for greatness. Was the real Murnau like this? That is anyone’s guess but it could be said that Murnau did make something that is still popular today, still frightening, and contains one of the greatest performances (Max Schreck’s Count Orlok) ever filmed. Malkovich also gets the film’s best line, coming at the last second of the film.

Compliments should also go to the way Merhige approached the overall look of the film. He mixes German Expressionism, surrealism, black and white, and silent film techniques together to create a consistently alluring piece of cinema. After seeing Begotten, we know that Merhige is a stylish artist, at times getting carried away with the visuals over the story. Here he applies each technique to drive the work forward. He even goes so far to add some footage from the original Nosferatu into Shadow of the Vampire, blending his actors into that specific film. The film could almost double as a film history lesson the way he applies little qualities (gothic atmospheres, use of shadow, intertitles, kaleidoscope images, and even behind-the-scenes Easter eggs) of the genres listed above and it becomes a real treat for cinema fans, allowing them to spot and identify the traits.

All the supporting actors do fine work in Shadow of the Vampire. The best behind Dafoe and Malkovich are Udo Kier’s occultist and producer Albin Grau and Cary Elwes as the replacement photographer Fritz Arno Wagner. Over the years, much has been made over the minor occult touches in Murnau’s Nosferatu, specifically the way he used shadows, which were supposed to symbolize the dark side of reality and occult symbols that were stamped on a document that Count Orlok reads. Well, in shadows lie demons, NOSFERATU, the undead, and what if the undead were really used in the making of the 1922 classic? Shadow of the Vampire is a dramatic and entertaining “what if” that is also a great exploration of method acting and dedication to one’s own art. At least Shadow of the Vampire can spark clear conversation over the bewildered head shaking that Begotten lured out of its viewers. There is nothing to fear in Shadow of the Vampire, only much beauty to drink in and delectable performances to savor.

Grade: A-

Shadow of the Vampire is now available on DVD.

Silent House (2012)

by Steve Habrat

The new horror film Silent House has been marketed as a single shot film that never cuts and that is told in real time. The marketing team could have also sold the movie as the horror film that is constantly allowing viewers a glimpse down star Elizabeth Olsen’s shirt. It seriously got to a point where it had to be intentional the way her cleavage was ALWAYS hanging out. Oh well, no amount of cleavage was going to save Silent House, which is rotten from the start, slightly redeems itself in the middle, and then violently crashes and burns due to a last act twist that is downright insulting. The truth is, Silent House is just one big experiment, one for directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau to brag how they made a film that is a single shot with no cuts. Well, I’m here to tell you that there are several masked cuts in the film (and they really are quite obvious), but there are a handful of drawn out sequences where the actors are demanded to actually act. It’s a shame really, because no one really possesses any true talent in Silent House. However, I can’t be too hard on Olsen, who does the best with what she is given, but the directors are more concerned with pulling off a gimmick rather than capturing truly fine acting.

Silent House follows Sarah (Played by Olsen), a young woman who is staying at a lakeside home with her father John (Played by Adam Trese). Sarah and John are attempting to renovate the home along with her suspicious Uncle Peter (Played by Eric Sheffer Stevens) so they can eventually sell it. Sarah starts hearing strange noises coming from the upstairs and begs her father to go up and investigate. While investigating, Sarah hears her father get attacked and then finds him unconscious with a nasty gash on his head. Sarah begins trying to figure out a way out of the house and getting help for her injured father, all while avoiding a strange presence in the home that has set its sights on Sarah.

The premise for Silent House is rather simple, but the big twist at the end wrestles with some difficult and disturbing subject matter that seems oddly out of place for a film like this. The problem is that the filmmakers have mishandled their subject matter, assuming we will be shaken to our core over what the film is tackling. They completely forgot to add terror to the film itself. Silent House quickly resorts to loud bangs, music blasts, and shadowy figures lurking in the distant background, techniques that evoke more yawns than jumps. The subject also takes a back seat to the experiment the filmmakers are trying so desperately to pull off. This is what makes Silent House such a disappointment, because when the filmmakers pull the rug out from under us, we are more flabbergasted by how preposterous the twist is over the horrifying nature of what has been going on. It truly is so implausible, I can’t believe the filmmakers would ask us to suspend that level of disbelief.

Once you have recovered from the half-assed twist, you’ll find yourself slowly aghast by the acting within the film. Elizabeth Olsen does the best job she can with what she is given here, so I can’t really criticize her too much. The acting work from Adam Trese and Eric Sheffer Stevens is another story entirely. There is nothing instinctive in their performances, both of which are so forced and unbelievable they come off almost robotic. The argument could be made that the actors are all trying to work choreography into their performances and a lot of choreography at that. Every move needs to be perfectly timed with a project like this, something that would weigh heavy on their minds. Sadly, the performances, along with the subject matter, get lost in the gimmick. There is also a brief (Thank God!) appearance by Julia Taylor Ross as Sophia, Sarah’s childhood pal who she barely recognizes at first when she unexpectedly drops by the house. Ross suffers from the same mangling of choreography and performance, seeming just as scripted as Trese and Stevens.

So what of Olsen? Well, Olsen isn’t as stilted as her costars, moving along much more benignly than everyone else. All that Kentis and Lau ask of her is to skulk around the dimly lit set and look horrified, uneasy, cry, and then scream out when she hears a footstep. It’s a relief that she is good at it! In a way, I’d like to see more out of Olsen, a young actress who I think is capable of more than starring in delusional teen horror films. Her true talent shows in the last act when she confronts the twist, a point where she gets to open up and show a bit of range and personality. I truly cannot image what kind of an experience Silent House would be if she didn’t come through with her part, even if that part is a cliché in a scarf.

Silent House shows moments where things could have gotten on track and started moving smoothly. There is a fifteen-minute stretch in the middle, culminating in Sarah using a Polaroid camera as a source of light to move through the darkened home, where things move up from humdrum to mildly exciting. The rest of this watered down experiment is the same old things-go-bump-in-the-dark exercise that is far from innovative. Yet the film never creates an effective atmosphere and it is completely inept in how to build tension and then serving up a satisfying pay-off. Instead, we get a second-rate shadowy antagonist, painfully tacky symbolism, and inane hallucinatory spurts before the filmmakers attempt their “gotcha” moment. For all the hype the people behind Silent House built to suck audiences in, the aspect you will actually remember is how the camera was always awkwardly and creepily aimed down Olsen’s shirt.

Grade: D+