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Sucker Punch (2011)
7/10
Fascinating, Frustrating, and Hard to Shake
11 April 2011
Several days after viewing it, I have come to the conclusion that I like "Sucker Punch." I *think* I like it, anyway. At the very least, I have been unable to shake its alternatively bleak, exhilarating, and brazenly energized imagery from my frontal lobe. Coming from director Zack Snyder (who co-wrote the original script with Steve Shibuya), the notion of calling this film a vanity project is redundant, as Snyder is the whiz kid who gave us Green-Screened visual feasts like "300" and "Watchmen" (graphic-novel adaptations that, in the case of the latter, came very close to perfection) -- films that gorged themselves on a unique kind of visual beauty. The difference between a technical auteur like Snyder and the soul-dead commercial hackwork of, say, Michael Bay is a reliable core of character and plot to push the visuals along with a sense of purpose, no matter how disparate. Which is what makes the initial machinations of "Sucker Punch" somewhat jarring -- set in an anachronistic, parallel-universe America, where Babydoll (Emily Browning) is sent away to an all-girls asylum after attacking her grotesque pervert of an uncle, she is covertly signed away (by an equally lecherous orderly) and set to receive a trans-orbital lobotomy at the end of five days, thus setting into play an imaginary world that may be her only chance of salvation. Old-world notions of psychiatry, patriarchy, and the role of women in such a repressive society is not where Snyder's interest lies, though he does create some distinctive (if not particularly well-drawn -- probably the film's biggest flaw) female ass-kickers, literally battling it out against unfathomable odds. Like Terry Gilliam's oeuvre on a dose of David Lynch mindbender, "Sucker Punch" is a largely self-indulgent work -- frequently chaotic, but mostly fascinating; Snyder's interest in cohering the various combat sequences (which run the gamut from a steampunk vision of WWII, a Medieval siege, and a futuristic train populated by android assassins) into a consistent narrative is minimal at best, instead opting for an epic, "bigger is better" mentality that reinforces the film's "against all odds" schematic (it may not be subtle or original, but the driven vision of it all makes it fly). Like Gilliam's undervalued "Tideland," "Sucker Punch" is destined for cult status -- and, unlike Tim Burton's lame interpretation of "Alice in Wonderland," is never boring.
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Frozen (I) (2010)
6/10
Freezer Burned
11 April 2011
While I seldom flat-out reject a film based on personal bias, I can't say I went into "Frozen" with great expectations. Even more so than the blaringly outspoken Eli Roth, the would-be "cult auteur" visage of writer/director/pilferer Adam Green (he of the wretched slasher throwback "Hatchet") comes across as representative of all the smug douchebags whose most (and sometimes only) original move was ripping off the horror films they were weaned on without throwing much creativity into the mix. Listening to the characters of "Frozen" exchange their initial lines portended an onslaught of spoiled-brat attitude that didn't bode well for its premise: three college types (played by Emma Bell, Kevin Zegers, and Shawn Ashmore) who become stranded high above a mountain in a ski lift, and their subsequent battle to survive. Once the time-killing setup has been dispensed with and we are looming high above earth with our defenseless trio, however, "Frozen" starts to build a dread that, while not completely terrifying, is at least gripping enough for its duration. The cinematography develops a sense of vertigo early on, and Green's script quite admirably avoids the urge to cut away from the lone setting (no flashbacks playing during the dialog, for instance), stranding the audience with the characters (who develop into near-three-dimensional people whose fates we care about) in a seemingly no-exit scenario.
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Winter's Bone (2010)
6/10
Winter's Boner
6 April 2011
I use the latter part of my summary to refer to a blunder, not the favored slang of adolescent boys comparing themselves in the high-school john. After allowing the flood of 'Best of 2010' lists naming "Winter's Bone" within their rankings to subside, I finally sat down and watched the film to make my own determination. While the specter of hype stood in the back of my mind, I tried to assess as little predetermined expectation as possible. The result? A film with a generally unsympathetic heroine, some sporadically gripping moments (thanks in large part to the setting and cinematography), and a persistent ambiguity that frustrates rather than fascinates (the Coen Brothers pulled a similar stunt with "No Country for Old Men," but their surface simplicity portended greater metaphors and meaning culled straight from Cormac McCarthy's source novel). While many have lauded "Bone"'s unconventional Noir and pulp aspects (set in the Ozarks, the film is populated by tattooed hicks, corrupt policemen, and charred houses where crank labs once stood), the lack of any sort of narrative payoff turns the proceedings into a wild goose chase trying to convince viewers that it's the Real Deal.
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Limitless (I) (2011)
4/10
Well Within Limits
6 April 2011
Warning: Spoilers
It's frustrating when any work of art -- be it an album of music, a novel, a painting, or a film -- carries a distinct yet maddeningly unplaceable sense of familiarity; when its sources and inspirations bubble exceedingly close to the surface without ever really showing their faces, as if embarrassed by what has been done with their influence. "Limitless" is a film fraught with such familiarity, and as a result, comes nowhere near matching its title. The plot involves disheveled, would-be writer Eddie Mora (the reliably charismatic Bradley Cooper), who has a run-in with a long-unseen cohort, who hooks him up with a transparent, dime-sized drug called NZT. After his first tab, Eddie plows through his novel and becomes a sudden fountain of once-untapped knowledge (the aim of the drug is to free up all the unused, inaccessible space in the human brain); he makes connections up the societal ladder, and eventually uses his expanded headspace to...wait for it...play the Stock Market and make himself filthy rich. This leads him to a position of grace with a powerful corporate mogul played by Robert De Niro (on default mode, as is usually the case these days). As one might predict, what goes up must come down, and the demands of NZT eventually cause Eddie to run afoul of some time-filling Russian mobsters who serve no real purpose other than to shoehorn some overly contrived, plot-desperate conflict into the proceedings. As directed by Neil Burger, "Limitless" is pulp, plain and simple -- alternating between bizarrely jokey voice-over narration, some very cool (if narratively disposable) 'rollercoaster' shots, and dour sermons on the side effects of addiction, all while culminating in an ending that favors convenience over believable logic.
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8/10
Spit Redux: Spit Harder
14 March 2011
My in-quotations "fanfare" for Meir Zarchi's notorious 1978 rape-and-revenge shocker "I Spit On Your Grave" was informed as much by the film's ambiguity and contradictions as by its shocks and relentless, unflinching perspective; here was a film that had a reputation for being one of the Baddest Mothers to play the grindhouse circuit, but was, in reality, a film also inclined toward the kind of contemplative, introspective moments you'd find in a film by Bergman or Antonioni (yes, I said it). Needless to say, I found the revulsion leveled against it both justified and over-the-top; I took greater issue with Zarchi's inexplicable desire to play all sides: the faultless female protagonist (the luminous Camille Keaton) who is brutally violated by four misogynist -- yet also maddeningly innocuous -- hoods who seem to represent the very worst manifestation of inexplicable sexual rage. Despite this, "Spit" remains a fascinating, one-of-a-kind work, which makes the notion of a remake something even more curious: while the fan opinion of Today seems to have balanced the scales against the critical opinion of Then, Zarchi's film remains best-known as the film Roger Ebert derided as the worst of all time.

By some strange feat, director Steven R. Monroe and writer Stuart Morse have given "Spit" a modern face-lift that improves and expands upon the original film, provides clearer character motivation (not to mention more development), and settles into acts of revenge that are jaw-dropping in their audacity, yet strangely justified in their torture-porn excesses. While Zarchi trafficked in predictable payoffs distinguished by geysers of gore, Morse scripts scenes of torture so florid that they border on the abstractly poetic (while hanging on by a delicate string of credibility throughout). The rapists here are three-dimensional nightmares of liquor-slugging (yet backwoods-smart) horniness, and our female protagonist (Sarah Butler, in a performance as courageous as Keaton's) finds the perfect balance between fear and intimidation; empowerment and hellfire vengeance. The plot is suspenseful and largely unpredictable (even during the first act, which uses Zarchi's script as a template but goes into even more grueling, horrifying terrain of negative anticipation), though "Spit Redux" sometimes flinches when it should push its excesses that much further (the actual rape is truncated, illuminating contemporary popular attitudes toward sexual violence in film). And some of the machinations of the last act stretch credibility in terms of character consistency. Still, "I Spit on Your Grave" is a remake as potent as "The Hills Have Eyes," "Dawn of the Dead," and "Halloween" -- an electrifying reminder of just how potent and ugly the filmed image can be (and that's a compliment).

7.5 out of 10
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Kynodontas (2009)
8/10
Eraserhead Goes Greek
14 March 2011
In an interview (on the Kino DVD) surprisingly devoid of any deliberate insight, director Giorgos Lanthimos explains that "Dogtooth" was conceived not in terms of a linear plot, but as a series of unrelated sequences. Watching the film, that is plain to see. "Dogtooth" takes the notion of the dysfunctional family and transforms it into a baby that David Lynch would love and coddle. This Greek production is rife with stark imagery, coded language, and very attractive actors doing heinously antisocial (by our standards of sociability, mind you) things in the face of a unique, purely insular world where the antisocial is indeed the accepted norm. We have a soft-spoken patriarch who works at an unnamed industrial facility (the film contains nary a brand name nor a recognizable reference to anything within popular culture, save for a few key moments), carrying on a guise of bread-winning "normality." When he returns home each day, he plays bizarre games with his developmentally challenged adult children (who have no notion of what waits outside the ominously cheerful fence that encircles the isolated acreage), and leaves his grown son to participate in awkwardly graphic intercourse with the female security guard at his facility. When the security guard begins to draw the daughters into her web of seduction (seemingly out of boredom), she threatens to bring the outside world crashing into their consciences, something the patriarch doesn't take kindly to. While sometimes running the edge between bizarre for its own sake and outright pretension, "Dogtooth," in its own hypnotic, stream-of-consciousness manner, manages to fascinate, compel, and haunt in equal measure. It's a sometimes-unpleasant film to view (and many mainstream viewers will be repelled by its stark, morally ambiguous perspective toward sexuality), but its images affix firmly in the mind's eye.

7.5 out of 10
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Buried (2010)
7/10
Strong, Subjective Horror
14 March 2011
When done well, a film whose main gimmick rests on the widespread fear of enclosed spaces can inspire a flood of queasiness and horror greater than most genre films (and indeed, something few can match). With few aesthetic exceptions, "Buried" is exactly what the title promises -- the tale of U.S. civilian contractor Paul Conroy (a fantastically believable Ryan Reynolds), who awakens in darkness, only to discover that he's been buried alive by terrorists bent on getting a ransom for his oxygen-deprived body. With only a cell phone, a pen, and a small canteen of liquor, director Rodrigo Cortes manages to ratchet up tension as well as (if not better than) a big-budget suspense thriller utilizing a wide variety of locales. For 95 grueling minutes, Paul frantically tries to make contact with the State Department, his company's CEO, and his absent wife in the States, only to be met with a string of double-talk, false assurances, and threats of extreme punishment (the terrorist he communicates with chillingly demands for him to make a ransom video for the public). With the exception of some brief video communicated via cell phone, Cortes never leaves the coffin, and the effect is harrowing; much like Conroy, we feel the urgency of the situation and the sense that time may be running out. While its closing twist is somewhat predictable (given the course of events, I feel that most viewers will see it coming), "Buried" is still an exhaustively well-done exercise in confined, subjective horror.
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Drive Angry (2011)
3/10
Highway to Cinema Hell
6 March 2011
With each successive role, Nicolas Cage becomes a sadder, more sulking version of his former self, which got me thinking: was Cage ever that great to begin with? While he has worked under the guidance of some impressive directors (including Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and Werner Herzog), has his acting range ever truly transcended the mindset of a bland (and sometimes hyperactive) summer action hero? "Drive Angry" goes a long way toward answering that question. The latest 3D'ed effort from director Patrick Lussier and writer Todd Farmer, who previously visited a remake of "My Bloody Valentine" upon us, this tale of a Badass escaping from Hell to rain down retribution upon the Bad Dudes who killed his daughter and took her baby is formless in concept (imagine a really bad rip-off of the already-bad "Constantine"), with minimal explanation given to John Milton (said Badass, played by Cage) and his powers...and his backstory...etc. The awful Amber Heard shines awfully in the role of Cage's sidekick, hitching her boots on an awful Southern twang. Looking like Jimmy Fallon given over to a rock-star hangover, Billy Burke ("Twilight") shows up as the Satanic cult leader who killed Milton's daughter, and looks to ritually sacrifice her child because...well, um, like a lot else in "Drive Angry," it's just never explained. Some filmmakers can float their concepts on a deliberate lack of conventional logic and exposition (early-period David Lynch and Roman Polanski comes to mind), delivering compelling work through a confident directorial vision. Lussier is not one of those filmmakers. As with "My Bloody Valentine," the 3D effect is very well-integrated, but amounts to little more than a throwaway bit of eye candy that adds nothing to the film overall; and with a story as half-baked as this, it doesn't take long for tedium to settle in. Like last year's faux-grindhouse experiment "Machete," "Drive Angry" is an awesome trailer hawking a lousy movie. The one bright spot: reliable character actor William Fichtner, showing up periodically as a commissioned-by-Hell "Accountant" tasked with bringing Milton back to the underworld; in his brief scenes, he brings a refreshingly mocking attitude to the proceedings that elicits some solid laughs.
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4/10
Null and Void
6 March 2011
With each film, director Gaspar Noe aims to provoke, disorient, and even violate the viewer in some way; as a result, one gets the impression that he invites the vitriol of those who would slam his cinematic vision. Now, while I was compelled (if not "entertained") by the near-pornographic subjectivity of Noe's "I Stand Alone" (the tale of a sociopath butcher wandering around France with a whole lot of pent-up anger) and "Irreversible" (a backwards-unraveling tale of revenge and rape), "Enter the Void" is an agonizingly overlong tale of death and the Afterlife that mistakes neon-saturated, drug-trip informed imagery as a profound comment on a world beyond our own mortality. In its first half, "Void" manages to compel and intrigue, even if our grating and unsympathetic protagonists (a brother-and-sister duo living in Japan as a drug dealer and a stripper, respectively) do very little to make all the flashy neon seem like more than aesthetic window-dressing. At 90 minutes, "Void" is a passable (if largely empty) film, but as it crawls towards the 3-hour mark, it becomes obnoxious, intolerable, and infuriating (with Noe's pretentious excesses -- culminating in a literal orgy -- becoming the stuff of yawns rather than gasps).
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Deadgirl (2008)
8/10
When Hughes Met Pasolini
21 January 2011
In a parallel universe, where a vacationing John Hughes (the definitive chronicler of '80s youth who needs no introduction) happened upon the set of Pier Paolo Pasolini's legendary endurance test "Salo: or the 120 Days of Sodom," the director of such light-yet-crushingly-truthful fare as "Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club" might have steered his sensibilities toward a script like "Deadgirl." Many of the core Hughes facets remain intact in this tale of two high-school buddies (Shiloh Fernandez and Noah Segan): one seeking the company of a long-lost crush; the other looking to get laid, and both paradoxically fascinated and repulsed by notions of their own sexuality. The script, by Troma veteran Trent Haaga, is brutally frank and unapologetically profane when it comes to teenage male notions of the opposite sex and all that women entail; when our duo, in the midst of trashing an abandoned mental hospital, stumble upon a nude woman chained to rusted basement piping, their sexual awakening becomes a descent into almost unbearable horror. Directors Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel parallel the permanent blue skies of above-ground suburban facades with the subterranean darkness of the asylum that, symbolically, becomes an oppressive metaphor for the eroding sanity of our conflicted characters. There is a queasy realism to the performances that lends "Deadgirl" much of its wrenching power: to be a teenager (that frustrating dead zone between "child" and "adult") in a circumstance as extraordinary as being able to perform any violent or sexually deviant act on a prone woman (who carries a fatal plague in her bite) invites the shattering of subtlety for a full-bore push through taboo after taboo. In many ways, the film is a semi-supernatural (the origin and species of the titular female is never explained) companion piece to Meir Zarchi's feminist revenge classic, "I Spit On Your Grave," wherein misogyny was deconstructed in a confrontational, punishing way that dared us to look away from the horrors unfolding on-screen. "Deadgirl" carries the same power -- a haunting and thought-provoking film that dives into hell face-first and doesn't look back.
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7/10
Pour Me Another Shot
18 January 2011
The reflexive urge to label any film that flaunts its own sense of willful ambiguity as "in the vein of Lynch" is an overused cliché in the realm of armchair film criticism. And it's all too easy to overstate the paranoid influence of Polanski on films that take a maddeningly subjective approach to their characters. And it's easier yet to label a movie released in 1990, yet utilizing gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, as a satirical-noir counterpart to Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" and the black-humored psychological horror of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" But "Singapore Sling," true to its alcohol-blended title, cribs all of these seemingly disparate influences into a bizarre original that, while not yielding the most emotionally resonant result, offers a hypnotic descent into a gradually escalating nightmare. Greek writer-director Nikos Nikolaidis offers a simple setup, revealed through the title character's voice-over narration: for three years, he has been searching for a woman named Laura, and an injury (for which no explanation is given) finds him on the doorstep of a deranged "Mother" (Michele Valley) and "Daughter" (Meredyth Herold), who proceed to torture and degrade our protagonist in all manner of revolting ways. "Singapore Sling" is well aware of its capacity to disgust and provoke, but what keeps the proceedings fascinating (and watchable) are performances (particularly Valley's and Herold's) that take on an inspired madness that convinces the viewer that their actions are consistent with their unglued personalities (and not mere showy torture fodder in the "Hostel" mold). Complementing Nikolaidis's madhouse aesthetic is the black-and-white cinematography, where one beautifully-conceived shot follows the next, and gives the proceedings a paradoxically classy look, despite the sharp contrast with the subject matter. While not without pretension, "Singapore Sling" straddles the line between "arthouse" and "grindhouse" with gleefully mad abandon, its unapologetic weirdness a breath of fresh air.
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Black Swan (2010)
8/10
Dark Beauty
10 January 2011
Darren Aronofsky has a thing for ambiguity. For those who like their films to leave some food for thought once the credits roll, he has a way of subverting our expectations, making us question all that happened before giving us a coda that inspires its own set of queries. What really happens after that final shot in "The Wrestler"? What transpires the following day in the lives of the junkies who have hit bottom (but still remain alive) in "Requiem for a Dream"? Just what the heck is "The Fountain" all about? For most of his career, Aronofsky has toyed with viewer expectation, and while his works up to this point have never approached the out-there, sexually provocative dreamscapes of David Lynch or the deeply distorted psychoses conveyed through the eyes of Roman Polanski's tortured protagonists, "Black Swan" comes pretty damn close to capturing a claustrophobic waking nightmare on film. Slim on character history or any sort of background detail, Aronofsky weaves the tale of Nina (Natalie Portman, in a role of equal parts beauty and visceral horror), a young ballerina who lives with her unhinged, washed-up mother (Barbara Hershey), and pines to take the lead in her troupe's production of "Swan Lake." When she snags the part (under the menacingly perverse and perfectionist eye of director Vincent Cassel), her waking life spirals into a hallucinatory madness that is at first subtle, but becomes increasingly otherworldly as the curtain nears. Things are compounded by Lily (Mila Kunis), the thrill-seeking Yin to Nina's naive Yang, who may have ulterior motives in befriending the newly minted lead. Aronofsky established his camera as an invasive stalker as he followed Mickey Rourke around (with sometimes uncomfortable physical closeness) in "The Wrestler"; with "Black Swan," he uses physical closeness to not only push us up against the fatigue and dissolution of his characters, but to immerse us in a unique sphere of activity (the last film I recall using ballet as a focal point is Dario Argento's "Suspiria"); the result is a film that is always in a state of motion -- sometimes fluid, sometimes jerky; but always progressing toward something. True to its title, "Black Swan" is centered on the darkness of the soul, the dark motives of men, and what people do in the name of perfection; it is a troubling, stylistically assured masterpiece that would make a great (and near-equal) double feature with Polanski's "Repulsion."
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8/10
Many Levels Above
10 January 2011
"Scott Pilgrim vs the World" is the most visually stunning and elaborate film taken from the pages of a graphic novel since "Watchmen." Actually, it's probably the most visually stunning film, period, since "Watchmen." And even more so, it is a prime example of cinema's ability to reconfigure familiar tropes (in this case, the Romantic Comedy run through the John Hughes/Diablo Cody hipster-slang script machine) into a finished whole that transcends nearly all crippling convention. Like Hughes and Cody, the language of "Scott Pilgrim" is distinctive, pop-culture savvy, and with a unique heart under its glossy, showy surface. Who knew that Edgar Wright, the promising director of such quaint-by-comparison genre homages as "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" had the capability to wield extravagant digital effects (with more dexterity than most high-budget filmmakers) in a film that sets a new precedent for hip romantic comedies? Scott Pilgrim (perpetual adolescent Michael Cera, typecast to his advantage here), the bass player in a struggling indie band, is getting over his last girlfriend by dating an Asian high-schooler; when he notices the neon bob of a steampunk rollerblader (the wonderfully deadpan Mary Elizabeth Winstead) one day, he becomes fixated on winning her over. Little does Scott suspect that this enticing babe has 7 ex-boyfriends he must lay to waste in order to claim her hand (and thus proving that chivalry is not dead). The film's setup takes some adjustment (with an emphasis on superimposed factoids about characters, comic-book sound effects, and storyboard panels laying out certain plot details), but by the time Scott is thrust into his first battle (not ironically at his band's first gig), Wright's approach establishes itself as something to be reckoned with -- these guys don't fight with traditional fisticuffs; they fight with the impossibly slick maneuvers of joystick-controlled video game Spartans. While it may sound eye-rolling in print, the choreography is smoothly rendered and edited with a precision that keeps us firmly rooted in the action; and better yet, Wright finds new ways to tweak and spin this fresh, candy-colored technique over the remainder of the film, so that it never gets tedious. By its close, "Scott Pilgrim" has given us an incendiary tale of romance and intrigue, never sacrificing character or story for the sake of mere visual dazzle. It surprises me to say, but I think it's the best movie of 2010.
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True Grit (2010)
8/10
Best Western
4 January 2011
I saw "True Grit" with four males: all of us comparable in age by a few years, all of us fans of the Coen Brothers, and all of our impressions and expectations untainted by the original filmed rendering of Charles Portis' novel of the same name. John Wayne may have been The Duke, but Jeff Bridges was The Dude, and the latter helped define a generation of slacker tourists swept along by the inexplicable happenings of everyday life. Go figure that the Coens, never content to settle into a niche of predictability, follow up "No Country for Old Men" (itself a subversive, postmodern take on Western genre mythos and archetypes) and "Burn After Reading" (a subversive bit of political-thriller tomfoolery) with a faithful literary adaptation that pits elegant, picturesque settings against raw and shocking violence (the film pushes the boundaries of its PG-13 rating); moments of grace and earnest emotion against sometimes gut-busting humor; and a sense of redemption and maturity against a world where many grown men are still playing a game of "cowboys and Indians," albeit with greater consequences. The Coens have long since proved themselves as two of our finest, most reliable filmmakers, and "True Grit" serves as both an all-encompassing collection of their idiosyncrasies and a story told using the greatest extent of cinematic language (the lush imagery, the grizzled characters, the somber score, the down-to-earth humor) to pull the viewer into a world at least a century removed from where we sit today. The performances are uniformly fantastic (with Hailee Steinfeld gamely straddling the line between potentially precocious brat and mature, intelligent girl). The direction is confident without being pretentious. And the story ebbs and flows with all the consistency of great literature. It may be a redundant sentiment at this point, but "True Grit" could be the Coens' masterpiece (though I feel they're not through with us by a long shot).
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4/10
Retirement of the Dead
22 December 2010
Since the release of "Land of the Dead" in 2005, distance between fans and critics in the realm of George Romero's ongoing zombie series has grown exponentially; while flawed, the epic scope and stinging commentary of "Land" captured the zeitgeist of a militaristic America reeling from the re-election of George W. Bush and his profit-hungry administration. 2008 saw release of "Diary of the Dead," a found-footage experiment that earned jeers for its artificial, calculated, and sometimes amateurish look and feel, but maintained a sense of urgency and dread in its parallel-universe telling of the first ghoul outbreak. Whatever the current critic/fan consensus may be, my own opinion is that Romero -- despite a stiff technique and frequent rejection of the Hollywood System (in spite of the budgetary detriment to his projects) -- has maintained a surprising consistency in his work (his zombie films are usually nothing less than compelling; his more personal projects meander and confound), where his contemporaries (such as John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, and Dario Argento) have severely fallen from greatness.

Like fine wine, an attribute that worked to the "Dead" films' advantage was the passage of time between episodes; Romero himself has stated in interviews that his intention was to comment on each successive decade (beginning with "Night of the Living Dead" in 1968), with the ensuing anticipation one of the perks of knowing the man was hard at work on his next undead opus. With films like "28 Days Later" and the "Dawn of the Dead" remake opening to respectable box office in the early 2000s, the zombie floodgates split wide open, causing an influx of imitators and wanna-bes; Romero's "Land" fell by the wayside in 2005, but succeeded in spiking interest in the man who started it all. "Diary" followed quickly after, finding its own bone of social commentary/satire to gnaw on, despite the closing gap between films.

Now, less than 2 years after "Diary," Romero's saga continues (and possibly concludes) with "Survival of the Dead," a film that contains brief flickers of the director's wit and social commentary, pitted against a whole lot of silliness and low-rent mediocrity. The director eschews satire in favor of a failed genre crossover: like John Carpenter's "Vampires," "Survival" takes a stab at the American Western, but the straightforward, surprise-free story (concering two feuding families on a remote island), and Romero's lack of technical dexterity (scene setups and transitions are as dull as can be) drowns any possible excitement. The sly, subtle humor of his previous films has become anvil-heavy in its overtness, and the characters are drawn with a jaded apathy which doesn't mirror their situation more than their creator's lack of inspiration. Even the once-practical gore effects have become a barrage of CGI, painful in its transparent fakeness. With such an under-realized premise matched with such production-rushed elements, one wonders if "Survival" was nothing more than a cash grab from the get-go.
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Antichrist (2009)
8/10
Primal Rage
20 December 2010
One of the many impish tricks of "Antichrist" is how writer-director Lars von Trier grounds the film in modern psychological dogma, but keeps us purposely locked outside of the characters undergoing these very intricate (yet very subjective) psychoses. Further complicating matters is a deliberate disconnect between protagonist and antagonist -- while a more conventional horror film would jump at the opportunity to make a therapist husband (Willem Dafoe) -- full of textbook knowledge on manipulating patients into desired states of rationality and self-actualization -- the shrewd villain toward his grief-stricken wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Trier underlines the detachment between individuals brought about by a shared tragedy (the death of a child). To aid his despondent wife in overcoming her pervasive grief, Dafoe takes her to an isolated cabin deep in the woods, where the natural life surrounding them begins to take on a life of its own...a life informed, perhaps, by Gainsbourg's own damaged psyche. In a possible dream sequence, a deformed fox informs Dafoe that "chaos reigns." Like the best works of David Lynch (particularly "Eraserhead"), "Antichrist" paints a portrait in symbols and abstract (and sometimes cringingly gruesome) displays of physical and mental anguish; there is a stark rawness and ambiguity to the proceedings that transcends art-house pretension as it plumbs the darkness of the human soul.

7.5 out of 10
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The Children (2008)
7/10
Who Could Suspect a Child?
19 December 2010
Children given over to the dark side has been a cyclical theme in the horror genre -- while many have told stories where possessed and/or psychotic pre-schoolers do terrible things, the subject requires a delicate touch (especially when pitted against the family-centric censors of the MPAA). Writer-director Tom Shankland, who turned what could have been another derivative "Saw" clone into something morally challenging and genuinely unsettling with "The Killing Gene," brings a similar sensibility to "The Children" -- a derivative yet effective shocker regarding a quartet of kids driven to murder by inexplicable forces. The film cobbles much of its thematic (and even technical) cues from the downbeat Spanish horror film "Who Can Kill a Child?" -- which dared to pose the morally provoking titular question to the viewer, as two newlyweds battled for survival on an island where children had inexplicably slaughtered all adults. Shankland transposes the locale from a sun-bathed European isle to an isolated English villa at Christmastime, where the adults engage in drink and mild debauchery, while four children are stricken with a sickness that gradually descends into homicides that appear (intially, at least) to be accidents. While "The Children" derives much of its effect from the desperation of its location, the suspense is built with delicate skill -- encapsulating the horror of the situation as it spirals further out of control, leading to a conclusion that chokes our hearts right as they are beating hardest. While "The Children" may not be the most creative attempt to mine terror from tots, Shankland's writing and direction turns it into an above-average fear-inducing machine.

6.5 out of 10
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Giallo (2009)
3/10
Yellow Shower
15 December 2010
Since the late 1990s, Dario Argento has been a director in a state of serious decline, a development made even more crippling due to the fact that, at one time, this now-elderly filmmaker played a highly influential role in mapping out the cinematic landscape of Italian horror and mystery (dubbed "giallo" after its roots in seedy paperback crime novels). It has been 15 years since his most noteworthy feature, 1995's underrated "Stendhal Syndrome," and up until now, he has been frantically trying to recapture the flavor of his celebrated early works ("Suspiria"; "Profondo Rosso"; "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage"); problem is, the more frantically he tries, the more pathetic his efforts become. Despite its ironic title, "Giallo" owes less to the heyday of seedy Spaghetti Thrillers and more to Argento's listless, lethargic latter-day efforts: an amalgam of poor script translation (and subsequent dubbing and sound sync), awkward performances, tortoise-paced exposition, and unimpressive gore. There are threads of backstory that go maddeningly unexplored (instead of connecting the traumatic upbringings of the cop and killer, these are instead turned into throwaway details left to flit in the wind), and the film ends with an intended ambiguity that comes off (quite disastrously) as an apathetic, pseudo-art house shrug. Even the presence of the usually-reliable Adrien Brody cannot bring "Giallo" up from its low-rent depths; his performance a monosyllabic sleepwalk that, like Argento, never seems more than half-conscious.
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5/10
Sometimes nihilism is not enough
28 November 2010
When nihilism is the prime component running through your movie, the end result becomes a tricky tightrope-act: some films take their alleged pointlessness and weave it into something artistic and transcendent (having a visionary director helps); others just wallow in their excesses and, by the end, nothing has been imparted or conveyed. "Cohen and Tate" falls into the latter category. For 86 minutes, the film plays out like a first-year screen writing exercise (two mismatched mob hit men in a moving car with a kid who's witnessed a murder). Unfortunately, even the fair pairing of Roy Scheider (fantastic as the jaded old-timer) and Adam Baldwin (as a young, kill-crazy psycho) cannot raise writer-director Eric Red's clunky, motivation-weak, and outright contrived script to transcendent heights. What we have here is a fair crime thriller with some decent action and suspense, but a go-nowhere plot that, by the end, feels maddeningly unfinished. It also doesn't help that our child-in-peril (Harley Cross) gives one of the worst performances in screen history (nor does it make much sense that our bickering hit men would put tape over his mouth until the film is almost over).

4.5 out of 10
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6/10
Madness, Desperation, and Dark Humor
26 November 2010
"The Human Centipede" entered the public consciousness in a barnstorming manner that rendered the notion of 'spoilers' a moot point indeed; while no cinema within my general geographical plane played the film during its theatrical run, the Internet buzz and festival reviews I gleaned on several trusted websites piqued my interest considerably. Having gone out of my way to experience willfully uncomfortable films (sometimes for no other reason than to say I survived them), writer-director Tom Six's "Centipede" quickly shot to the top of my must-see list. The subsequent viewing experience was a wild, over-the-top mixture of morbid, absurd humor, queasy unease, and unrelieved, batsh1t-crazy horror. To call Six's narrative structure "tonally inconsistent" would be an understatement; the film progresses through three distinct acts: the first consists of two rock-stupid American girls vacationing in Germany, whose car trouble echoes the "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"; the second consists of the girls (and a Japanese businessman) falling prey to the deranged machinations of Dr. Heiter (the wonderfully unhinged Dieter Laser); and the third is a descent into desperation, madness, and violence that few horror films successfully pull off. Throughout, Six is keenly aware of the mad-scientist improbability of his scenario, but creates a paradox in presenting a world where a man could harbor notions of three people sharing the same digestive tract; as such, there is also a thread of deliberate, pitch-dark humor that permeates the proceedings. While the tonal inconsistency of "The Human Centipede" suggests that Six should try harder to streamline his concepts into a more synthesized, less episodic whole, the film overall is a refreshing example of the originality of which the horror genre is capable.
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Unstoppable (2010)
7/10
Loco Locomotive
26 November 2010
From the moment I saw the trailer, I found the title laughably obvious: "Unstoppable"? If the film's central conceit of an out-of-control locomotive barreling through southern Pennsylvania didn't eventually find a way to come to a halt, it would just as well be defeated by the closing-credits sequence. Grounded in the increasingly suspect "Based on True Events" claim, "Unstoppable" is, at its core, a surprisingly effective (and at times unbearably suspenseful) thriller that relies on sheer race-against-time velocity over violence to deliver a mostly unrelieved 98 minutes of nerve-racking tension. While the characters are familiar types (the Grizzled Veteran, the Hotheaded Rookie, the Private-Interests Executive, Mission Control), the actors invest a palpable energy and humanity that transcends cliché. Director Tony Scott, who has perpetrated more execrable, ADHD cinematic migraines than any other director over the past decade, admirably reins in his manic editing techniques and over-saturated neon color schemes in favor of a jerky, shaking camera that actually complements the increasingly out-of-control train (my only real objection would be his excessive, pointless use of zoom). "Unstoppable" is refreshingly entertaining -- a slice of old-school suspenseful filmmaking spiced up with contemporary technology.

6.5 out of 10
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6/10
Doesn't Fully Connect
26 November 2010
David Fincher has always been one of my favorite directors, a visual stylist unafraid of pushing boundaries or putting his full effort into controversial (and sometimes even grotesque) scripts. With the exception of "Alien3," my affection for this auteur has maintained stable through the years; even more difficult, patience-testing, mainstream-leaning works like "Zodiac" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" maintain a human solidity and warmth at their labyrinth cores. And hot on the trail of those mainstream-leaning works comes "The Social Network," a film that has been hailed as capturing the Zeitgeist of our time (embodied in Mark Zuckerberg -- played here by Jesse Eisenberg -- the founder of Facebook); and while nobody ever said a Zeitgeist needed to be embraced by all, I found the coldness of the film overall to be its most notable (and most crippling) aspect. The film presents Zuckerberg as a motor-mouthed, self-absorbed, and socially inept college kid who, in a fit of anger over a girl who has just snubbed him, germinates the seed of Facebook over the course of a few drunken hours (the film will return to the theme of romantic/personal failure as the seed of vengeance-through-technology retribution more than once); the remainder of "The Social Network" criss-crosses between present day and flashback, chronicling the bridges Zuckerberg burned as quickly as they were built, and the wake of angry, ripped-off colleagues and contemporaries left in the dust as Facebook became the Internet's premier social networking site. While Aaron Sorkin's whip-cracking dialog all too often feels like a less endearing, less caustic version of Mamet-speak that is never as clever as it thinks it is, the real surprise of "The Social Network" is the utter conventionality of Fincher's direction. For a film as jam-packed with characters as this, we never feel especially close to anybody, and Zuckerberg (who is essayed with an admirable lack of grace, couth, and empathy by Eisenberg), who dominates the proceedings, is both loathsome and pathetic. Perhaps a second viewing will be more fulfilling, but for now, "The Social Network" is a rather unappetizing contemporary history lesson without much beyond its incendiary content to recommend it. Actually, it is worth viewing for the fantastic minimalist score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
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RED (2010)
5/10
Nothing to blush over
26 November 2010
Sometimes, the mere novelty of an idea can see a movie through the entirety of its run time (for a recent example of this, see the action-star-has-been extravaganza "The Expendables"); and sometimes, the novelty falls apart well before the movie is over. For its initial hour, "Red" engenders optimism about where it will ultimately wind up: retired CIA operatives played by Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren find themselves targeted by assassins for unknown reasons. During this introductory period, we are treated to some stunning action setpieces, some amusing (if not always hilarious) character development, and some name actors doing what they do best (Willis, especially, seems to be having a blast playing a parody of the summer action hero he helped create). Director Robert Schwentke stages the action and cross-country story with a kinetic fluidity; it's a shame, then, that the film (adapted from a DC comic, believe it or not) eventually succumbs to the demands of a plot that, by the time it rolls around, feels half-baked an disposable.
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Devil (2010)
4/10
Preachy Devil
12 November 2010
When addressing matters of faith and spirituality (extending to the belief that a very literal 'devil' can walk undetected among humanity), the best horror films are usually those that approach these notoriously divisive, eternal themes with a degree of subtlety, reverence, and grace. Think of William Friedkin's cinematic adaptation of "The Exorcist" -- for as much as that film was about the presence of an evil spirit running amok inside a little girl, it approached the internalized spiritual conflicts of its characters with a proper ambiguity that kept (and still keeps) the viewer thinking. The only ambiguity that pervades during the at-first gimmicky, at-last tedious, at-best passable "Devil" is the increasingly tiresome guessing game of which of 5 seemingly random, trapped elevator passengers will bite the dust next, and how? Commencing with a Biblical quote and threading the cringingly earnest voice-over narration of a cringingly earnest Latino security guard throughout the film's brief 80-minute run time does nothing to create an atmosphere of subtlety or ambiguity. Which is a shame, since M. Night Shyamalan's story idea is ripe with possibility: the notion that the devil is among the 5 passengers, all of whom have some hidden sin to confess, with the elevator serving as a figurative pressure-cooker to bring their guilt out into the open. I am quite fond of claustrophobic, limited-setting thrillers when done well, but "Devil" (despite some fantastic, flowing exterior shots), considering its title and subject, eventually starts repeating the same gimmicks (cue the blackout, followed by another dead body; rinse, repeat), all while trying in vain to create an atmosphere of tension that becomes increasingly futile as the film progresses. The characters are shallowly shaded clichés that exist to be easily disposed by the demands of the plot, and therefore never leave enough of an impression for us to actually care about their fates. Brian Nelson, who wrote the overrated "Hard Candy," covers no new ground in his blandly pedestrian script, leaving director John Erick Dowdle (who made the fantastic "Quarantine" in 2008) to organize PG-13 jump scares into a slick yet utterly disposable piece of Hollywood product.
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Let Me In (I) (2010)
7/10
Entry Granted
13 October 2010
As I can be kind of stubborn toward particular films that get heaps of praise from every conceivable angle (let's admit: the hype factor can saturate even a niche conscience to the point where interest is decreased as a result), it took me a good long while to get around to watching "Let the Right One In," the Norwegian vampire saga that is as interested in the fragility of children's relationships as it is in subverting conventional cinematic standards of the vampire mythos. In the end, I was converted into -- and still am -- a true believer in its greatness. The Americanization of foreign films has always been a tricky prospect (even in the decades preceding Hollywood's current infatuation with recycling), synonymous with "dumbing down" a concept for the sake of placating the impatient masses (and their notorious intolerance of subtitles). There is a lot to admire about "Let Me In," Matt Reeves' faithful U.S. transplant: the moody score is fantastic; the performances by Chloe Moretz ("Kick-Ass") and Kodi Smit-McPhee ("The Road") are delicately heartbreaking; and the sparing use of CG allows a quiet, simple story of childhood camaraderie (paradoxically complicated by the extraneous factors -- absentee parents, religious tension, schoolyard bullies, puberty -- that make a child's life complex) to take precedence above all else. Reeves deserves an accolade for resisting the urge to transform the film into a surround-sound, jump-scare-happy headache of the Platinum Dunes sort, instead challenging the viewer to something more subtle and deliberate. Where he falters, however, is in making the strong setpieces of the original (particularly the climactic "pool scene") truly his own -- there just isn't enough creativity or divergence present to reconfigure these now-classic moments into something that will impress those who have seen "Let the Right One In." Still, "Let Me In" coasts on a uniquely moody energy that makes it worth a look on its own terms.

6.5 out of 10
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