Friday, January 30, 2009

Come on in [The Uninvited]

The Uninvited [PG-13]
Grade: A
Cast: Emily Browning, Elizabeth Banks, Arielle Kebbel, David Strathairn
Director: Thomas and Charles Guard

Let me begin my review of The Uninvited with an old war story from my earliest days of writing these things.

This story is, above all, a confession of a lack of nerve. In my first few months of film writing, as I was just getting my feet under me, I watched a romantic comedy that I thought was far above the typical fare. I thought long and hard about giving it a four-star review. However, deep down, I accepted the “just a rom-com,” theory. I couldn’t conceive of giving it a grade above a certain level. So, while still recommending it, I talked myself into a lower grade.

I regret that decision to this day. The film, the Ashton Kutcher-Amanda Peet effort A Lot Like Love, remains the best generic romantic comedy that I have seen as a film critic. And I can still tell you why. It had a semi-real director, and therefore a few moments of visual touch. It drained Kutcher of his Kutcher-ness and found something likably Midwestern in his mien. Most of all, it gave a crap about its characters. As a result you rooted for them. You’d be surprised how far a little caring goes.

So lesson learned. And today applied. As weird as this is to say, The Uninvited is the best generic horror flick that I’ve seen as a critic. I suspect it will be several laps around the sun before I like one more. I wouldn’t say it is original. It is a remake of a Korean horror film, A Tale of Two Sisters, after all. I would say, though, that it’s perfectly effective. It zigged and I zagged. Its ending, while not perfectly original, swiped me with a shock left.

The genius of this gothic horror story (and, yes, that word is too strong, but eh, there it is.) is that the story is not a horror film at all. But the main character, a bubbly, baby-faced wrist-slitter named Anna, convinces us that she’s stuck in one. Yes, there are supernatural freak-outs. Ghosts and ghouls. Apparitions and hallucinations. This film knows many horror-show tropes. Yet it manages to resist. I might go so far as to call the whole horror thing a bit of a maguffin. A throwaway. A marketing masquerade for a stranger story.

Fueled not by gore but by female pacts and jealousies, the debut feature of directors Thomas and Charles Guard is underlined by Freudian touches and a vague eroticism. The film’s strength lays in the bond between Anna and her rebellious wiseass sister, Alex ( a solid Emily Browning and a standout Arielle Kebbel, respectively). Kindred and vibrant spirits, they isolate themselves in a beehive of paranoia upon Anna’s returns from a mental hospital. She still cannot remember details about the death of their incapacitated mother, lost in a mysterious boathouse explosion at their oceanside Maine estate. Their suspicions of murder fall on Rachael (Elizabeth Banks), their mother’s nurse and father’s mistress, who is now the lady of the house. Her tastes run to tranquilizers, other people’s money, and long, sharp knives. Just ask the roast.

I find horror films refreshing from time to time. It’s deliciously simple filmmaking. The cinematic language is so direct. Creeking doors. Ringing bells. Sensitivity to light and shade. Even if these things melted into cliché long ago, the style remains extraordinarily aware to the quiet beauty and terror of nature. That applies to the lushly lit cinematography, intoxicated by the seaside landscape. The film needs a credit for God for creating British Columbia.

Some critics will grouse about the horror clichés – a bloody ghost, dead child spirits, and the like. Mostly, these feel like they came attached to a wad of money – fodder for the necessary commercials. Yet those paying attention will notice something different. Rather than easily reveal secrets, as ghosts would do in most horror films, they confuse. They obfuscate. They send these Hardy Girls on goose chases. The film uses cliché to attack cliché. In essence, they subvert the form, creating a post-modern film with a very casual stroke.

While not comparing The Uninvited in quality, it spiritually derives from an impressive roster of films – such as Rebecca and Diabolique. It’s not about making spines tingle. It’s about being wound in a web, slowly and deeply and completely.

There is a moment as we approach the climax when Anna escapes her wicked stepmother and takes her evidence to the local sheriff. He nods in understanding. Then he leaves her in the office. And she wakes up while being attacked. At least, that’s how Anna sees it. And that’s how we see it, too. This is the mark of the film’s accomplishment, our slow, silent, complete cocooning inside this character’s perspective. Arthouse directors sometimes will go for being so completely wrapped into a character’s perspective . And yet here it is in a Hollywood horror movie. The film is much more than it will appear to some eyes.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Surprise, surprise

So sometimes you go to a film and find it is much better than you expected walking in. I had that experience with a film last night. Total surprise.

Backlash away

Dennis Lim takes on the question of Slumdog and accuracy/fantasy. Meanwhile, Noah Forrest at Movie City News takes a baseball bat to The Reader. The part about Stephen Daldry obviously being the world's greatest director is quite humorous.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike, rest in peace

Love him or oppose him, John Updike was the epitome of post-war establishment Americal76iterature. He passed today at the age of 76.

Slumdog and SAG

With its SAG win for Best ensemble cast, it looks like Slumdog Millionaire is headed for a Best Picture win. If that many actors are overlooking the fact that, Irfan Kahn aside, the acting in Slumdog isn't really its strong point, then it must be an indication that they are looking for ways to honor the film.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Does Slumdog Millionaire portray a "White Man's version of India?"

Friday, January 23, 2009

Bringing a book to life [Inkheart]

Inkheart [PG]
Grade: C
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Eliza Bennett, Paul Bettany, Andy Serkis, Helen Mirren, Sienna Guillory, Jennifer Connelly
Director: Iain Softley

In Inkheart, Brendan Fraser loses his wife in a bizarre book-reading accident.

As a professional bookbinder, the silver screen’s newest big-time child-herder is a “silver tongue” a person who can literally bring a story to life simply by reading out loud. He releases a cast of knife-wielding meanies from the pages of an adventure book called Inkheart. But it isn’t a free lunch. His wife gets sucked into the book. That leaves him to wander the earth in search of another copy.

Even without a mother, he raises his daughter Maggie so well that she turns out English. They move around in pursuit of a rare copy of Inkheart. When he finally finds one in a European bookstore, one of the released characters, a rogue (Paul Bettany), finds him. Armed henchmen aren’t far behind. A Vokswagen bus is not an ideal getaway car.

Soon they’re lost in a book, trapped in a fairy-tale castle on top of a mountain so remote that even the tax assessors seem to have missed it. It’s the hideout for Capricorn (Andy Serkis), the novel’s Bwahaha-ing evil bad guy. So with a minotaur, The Wizard of Oz’ flying monkeys, and Peter Pan’s ticking crocodile, they await their execution in an underground dungeon. Where’s a good copy of The Slaughterhouse-Five when you need it?

Helen Mirren plays a book-collecting aunt. Jennifer Connelly does a dialogue-free cameo as a faraway maiden. Is this an awkwardly placed paragraph? Well, it’s awkwardly placed casting.

A good concept. I would say yes. Director Iain Softley’s fairy tale does best when it jokes with its concept, bringing Toto to life, for instance, with a signature one-liner about being in Kansas . Unlike other recent Harry-Potter-alikes, the story, based on the children’s books of Cornelia Funke, has a certain post-modern metafictional touch that I find appealing. Yet as film, it never really leaps off the page. For a film about stories being lifted from the page, the film seems like it would feel more comfortable right back there rather than the big screen.


I'll leave it to Christopher Orr at The New Republic to sum up my feelings about the Oscar noms. He does it very succinctly and accurately. I would only say that I'm happier with the Best Actress noms than he is. I think it's a case of his preferred picks getting left out. I like all those noms. Hathaway is probably my favorite. I haven't seen The Reader, but Winslet was a revelation is Revolutionary Road. The more I think about Streep, the more I think she so dominated the film that Hoffman got lost. Melissa Leo, I haven't seen, but I've loved her since back to Homicide. Jolie is the mess. Yes, indeed, you can cry your way to an Oscar nod.

About The Dark Knight snub - as I've argued elsewhere around the Web, it was that rare opportunity where the Academy could have nominated a popular and critical uber-success. They chose middlebrow forgetability, instead. If this were last year and TDK were left out in favor of No Country, Zodiac, Jesse James, Once, and There Will Be Blood, I would understand. But this year? Makes no sense.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

First reaction ....

Did they just nominate The Reader and leave off The Dark Knight?

If so, they are going to deserve their lousy ratings.

And if so, I don't have a dog in the Best Picture hunt. Usually three or four of my top 10-15 films are in there. Not this year. Zero of my top ten. Milk might be in my top 15.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Have another drink, Nora

I'm on a Thin Man kick. So if they were going to make a new Nick and Nora movie, either a period piece or a modern update, who should play Nick and Nora?

Naturally, all the answers are on IMDB. Some people over there think Robert Downey Jr. would make a natural Nick Charles. Can't argue with that choice. Armond White.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural note

Listening to the Inauguration today, it reminded me of something, something that nobody is supposed to say out loud, especially a writer.

Poetry sucks.

There. I said it.

Today's poetry is particularly offensive - meandering and meaningless. I like a little poetry, assorted TS Eliot, Dylan Thomas, etc., but I'm not sure there's been a poet worth his or her salt in fifty years.

If you want to know why I so oppose movies moving toward elitism, just listen to that poem and see what it's done for poetry.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

And another one, too

Number 6 himself, Patrick McGoohan, too, finally leaves The Village. Will the man upstairs be an ape, or himself?

One death


Rest in Peace.

Iron Man 2 rumors

So cool. Emily Blunt, maybe, for Iron Man 2. With the Mickey Rourke rumor, this is starting to look up.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Golden Globes

So Golden Globes .... meh. Kate Winslet doubles. Good for her. Mickey Rourke wins and uses the word balls twice on TV. Slumdog ...... Hey you know, these are usually predictive of Oscars, but usually we know the Oscar front-runners by now. The good news for awards season this year is that I'm not sure there are front-runners, except for Heath Ledger. Everything else seems fairly up for grabs.

HIts and misses

An interesting article on box office hits this year, as seen through the return on investment. If you had Fireproof as the biggest success relative to budget, you won.

Friday, January 9, 2009


Did Angelina Jolie really give Anti-D sweetheart Anne Hathaway a "scowl," an "evil eye," a "hairy eyeball" after the latter won the Best Actress award at the hysterically-named Critics Choice Awards? Ooh. That's the best reason that I can think of to give Jolie an Oscar nomination.

Directors Guild of America nominees

Thank goodness we have Ron Howard around to enrich our lives. /rolleyes

Sunday, January 4, 2009

As long as we're doing Oscar stuff ...

The New York Times critics offer up their Oscar nominee choices. To me, the purpose of an Oscar exercise isn't entirely to present my top five films and actors and actresses from, in Oscar terms, obscurities. There has to be a relative practicality, with the occasional impracticality thrown in. Naming Jeanne Moreau as a Best Supporting Actress nominee in an obscure foreign film might be fine; naming fifteen of these in the acting categories isn't. (Stephen Holden is the one that seems to most get this with his suggestions. Scott seems to somewhat adhere to this. Dargis doesn't care.).

The Oscars are what they are. At their best, they get the nation talking about a slice of the year's best films. And on the whole, that's a good thing in my book.

That said, I would love to see Hanna Schygulla nominated. I just haven't seen The Edge of Heaven yet.

PS: It also doesn't do any good nominating a film that had an Oscar qualifying run last year - 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. Otherwise I might have stuck in a couple nods.

PPS: Then again, I guess it's a For Your Consideration list, and not predictions. So, I suppose this list is more meant as suggestions.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Oscar predictions

I usually do this earlier, but the potential selections this year haven't exactly inspired me to get off my tail and do this. So the only rule here is that the nominees have to be somewhat practical. I decided that Let the Right One in is a more practical BP prediction than The Class among foreign films. Don't ask me how I determined that. Neither one is getting a nod.

I am in the blue. They, of course, are in the gold.

Best Picture (me)
Let the Right One In
The Dark Knight
Man on Wire
Rachel Getting Married
The Wrestler

Best Picture (them)
Slumdog Millionaire
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight

Best Actor (me)
Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Jeff Goldblum, Adam Resurrected
Sean Penn, Milk

Best Actor (them)
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Sean Penn, Milk

Best Actress (me)
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Lina Leandersson, Let the Right One In
Audrey Tautou, Hors de Prix
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road
Meryl Streep, Doubt

Best Actress (them)
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Cate Blanchett, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky

Best Supporting Actor (me)
Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges
Josh Brolin, Milk
Bill Irwin, Rachel Getting Married
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Aaron Eckhart, The Dark Knight

Best Supporting Actor (them)
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Josh Brolin, Milk
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Michael Sheen, Frost/Nixon
Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder

Best Supporting Actress (Me)
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Olivia Thirlby, Snow Angels
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married
Frances McDormand, Burn After Reading

Best Supporting Actress (Them)
Viola Davis, Doubt
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married
Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Best Director (Me)
Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
Gus Van Sant, Milk
Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler
James Marsh, Man on Wire
Jonathan Demme, Rachel Getting Married

Best Director (Them)
David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
Gus Van Sant, Milk
Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Jonathan Demme, Rachel Getting Married

MoW vs. Grizzly Man

While writing my top ten list, I noticed the similarity between two of my number ones over the past four years of film reviewing - Man on Wire and Grizzly Man. They’re extremely similar stories of fairly similar men, but one ends in accomplishment and one in a bear’s stomach.

I'm not sure what to think. What do you all make of this?

Oscar contenders and box office

Look at the box office for the main Oscar contenders. Not real impressive at this point. Nothing except Button is really capturing the imagination at this point. Slumdog has done nice business, but far from Juno-esque. Are they all waiting for the noms before expanding? And is Frost/Nixon in danger of not getting a Best Picture nom? It's at $2,600 a screen at 200 screens with a $5.3 million cumulative. You must wonder if the F/N box office thud is going to kill its Best Picture chances. I don't mean to say that a great film would have to be a hit in order to get a nomination, but most of these films are not truly great films.