Sunday, August 21, 2011

What I've Been Watching -- August 2011

I haven't been able to keep up with writing full reviews lately about the movies I've been seeing. Between going to theaters and catching up on this year's releases on Blu-ray, I've seen a lot. Here are my thoughts on some of the 2011 films I've watched over the past couple weeks.

Trust (2011), dir: David Schwimmer ***1/2

Friends alum, David Schwimmer, directs this passion project about a 14-year old girl who gets raped by an older man she met on a social network. Schwimmer's dedication to this film is obvious from his attention to details that take the material well-beyond its "After School Special"/Lifetime network subject matter. The film uses the rape (revealed in a very uncomfortable, frightening way) as the hub of a series of events involving not only the victim, Annie (Liana Liberato), but her parents, Will (Clive Owen) and Lynn (Catherine Keener). There are trust issues all around, as the title reminds us, but this is a good, all-American family, with attentive, loving parents, and well-rounded, obedient children; this shouldn't be happening to them. Our transition into this social networking era has brought with it new ways to engage the insecurities of impressionable kids, and that is where Trust is at its best, showing us Annie as she chats with "Charlie" on-line, confessing her deepest secrets and feelings to a faceless stranger she firmly believes is a 16-year old volleyball player. When Annie finally admits the truth of her ordeal to herself, the heartbreak and agony is gut-wrenching and great filmmaking.

The Help, dir: Tate Taylor ***1/2

For the most part, The Help is nothing new. It is a film about a white girl named Skeeter (Emma Stone) who decides she can't handle the racism in her Jackson, Mississippi town anymore in the early 60s, so she takes to interviewing all the black servants in town to get their stories of injustice at the hands of their white owners -- I mean, employers. We learn nothing here we didn't already know -- blacks were mistreated by ignorant, racist whites who saw them as nothing more than paid slaves -- but the movie handles the material with such excellent humor and some terrific performances that it is impossible to dislike. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer deserve all the kudos they will receive portraying Aibileen and Minny, best friends who have finally had enough of the disrespect of debutante Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). They bring considerable vulnerability and strength to their performances, especially Davis, who is stunning. The Help is this year's Driving Miss Daisy, and it is a crowd-pleaser. It also features perhaps the best poop joke I've seen in a movie, a simple pleasure I simply can't ignore.

Hobo with a Shotgun, dir: Jason Eisener ***

A disturbing, ultra-violent grindhouse film about a hobo (Rutger Hauer) looking to get a new start by re-locating to a different city. He finds himself in an urban nightmare, where the local gangster, The Drake (Brian Downey) orchestrates bloody massacres at high noon, where people are paid to beat up the homeless on film, and where a pedophile is given free rein to dress up as Santa Claus and abduct children after school. Eventually, our hobo can't take it anymore, buys a shotgun at a local pawn shop and proceeds to exact his vigilante justice on this vile town. Hauer's performance is awesome, the violence creative and over-the-top, and the use of color vibrant and chilling. The movie doesn't have much to say beyond its "society is fucked up" message, but it does so with such style and diabolical joy that you can't help but enjoy the ride.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, dir: Rupert Wyatt ***

Not that we needed a prequel to the 60s-70s Planet of the Apes series, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a well-made one that should stand as a blueprint for how prequels should be made. It is filled with tension and excitement, explains how things got to be the way they were in the 1968 film, and has a strong cast, especially Andy Serkis, whose digital captured performance of the ape, Caesar, is filled with greater emotion and depth than any human character in the film. The basic plot is simple: Will (James Franco) is a scientist who thinks he has cured Alzheimer's, which is slowly claiming the life of his father (John Lithgow). After one of the test chimps goes apeshit, his experiments are shut down and all he's left with is a baby ape to raise on his own under the radar. The baby ape, Caesar, is the success of the experiments, growing up ultra-smart, but due to mistreatment by a range of humans, Caesar discovers he has to bring his fellow apes together so they can be liberated. It's like Braveheart with monkeys. An unnecessary, but terrific, summer flick.

Unknown, dir: Jaume Collet-Serra **1/2

A wannabe Hitchcockian film with a strong lead performance by Liam Neeson, who is the greatest geriatric action film star of all-time. Unfortunately, he's in a film with a scripts as dumb as bricks that doesn't know when not to take itself seriously. Had this movie gone the campy route, it might have been good, but instead it affects a grave, intense tone drenched in grays and somber blues. The premise involves Neeson playing a biochemist named Martin Harris who arrives in Berlin with his wife (January Jones) for an important conference. Martin gets into a horrible traffic accident and wakes up four days later to discover that there's now another man (Aidan Quinn) who claims to be the doctor. This case of mistaken identity naturally leads to talk of global conspiracy, yadda-yadda-yadda. What is does mostly is talk down to the audience by allowing its villains to explain themselves at every turn, and by boring us with easily predicted plot twists. Yawn.

The Ward, dir: John Carpenter **1/2

After a long hiatus, John Carpenter returns to movies by bringing us The Ward, a movie that might have worked better a couple years ago, before Zack Snyder ruined female-themed insane asylum movies forever with Sucker Punch. In this film, Amber Heard plays Kristen, an arsonist who winds up in a haunted asylum. She meets the other girls who are staying in her wing, including the resident ghost, Alice (designed by the always awesome make-up artist Greg Nicotero), who wants all the girls dead. Kristen encourages everyone to escape, but while the orderlies and the good doctor (Jared Harris) don't seem very skilled at keeping the girls locked down, Alice does. The first half of the film is an exercise in building atmospheric horror. Carpenter's use of angles and editing show why he is a master craftsman. He is able to make seemingly the most meaningless moments feel full of dread. Unfortunately he can't sustain the tension, and once the monster is set loose, the film becomes a fairly standard slasher. The twist is a bit of a cheat, but the ward has one thing going for it: it is sure as hell better than Sucker Punch.

Limitless, dir: Neil Burger **

Like Unknown, this thriller is dumber than dirt. Bradley Cooper stars as Eddie Morra, a blocked writer who gets the answers to all his problems in a little pill that makes him capable of accessing 100% of his brain. This could have been an interesting film, had the writer spent some time reading science-fiction over the last 40 years, but instead it devolves into a paranoid drug-thriller as Eddie, despite being the smartest human alive, does some really stupid shit. Somehow, we are supposed to believe that a sensitive, bohemian artist type would take a mind-expanding drug and decide that what he really wants to do is get involved in stocks. We're supposed to believe that he would seriously consider borrowing money to increase his capital from a degenerate loan shark. And we're supposed to believe that this guy would aspire to become a politician. Once Eddie takes his pill and goes down the rabbit hole, he no longer remains a character, but a puppet of the plot. And the climax of this film is one of the stupidest things I've seen all year. It only gets two stars because of the way in which director Neil Burger shoots the sequences in which Eddie is fired up on this drug; they're inventive and interesting in a way the character and plot are not.

The Roommate, dir: Christian E. Christiansen *1/2

This is a knock-off of 90s stalker-chick films like Single White Female and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Unfortunately it doesn't have nearly as talented a cast, or nearly as interesting a story to tell. Sara (Minka Kelly) begins college at the fictional University of Los Angeles and discovers that she has a psychotic roommate, Rebecca (Leighton Meester). The plot is a boring collection of contrivances, with only one scene having any real tension in it (a Brian dePalma-esque sequence in which Rebecca masturbates while talking with Sara's ex-boyfriend on the phone while Sara has sex for the first time with her new boyfriend). I knew going in that The Roommate was not going to be a very good movie, but I was hoping it might be laughably bad, worthy of being ridiculed forever. Unfortunately, it wasn't even kind enough to be that -- ultimately, it's just a bad, forgettable movie.