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Saturday
Jan072012

The Devil Inside (2012)

Not All Films that Wander are Lost

So many forces work against The Devil Inside that it's difficult to review the movie objectively. Critics have gone to town on 2012's first mainstream theatrical release--bitter, I suppose, at now having to contend with lowly genre films instead of their beloved historical epics. Meanwhile, horror audiences are left to hope for the best with a movie that combines two sub-genres for which Last Rites wouldn't be out of the question: the "found-footage" faux documentary and the demonic possession flick.

I never advocate turning off one's brain during a movie, but setting the "This is Stupid" dial to about three is always a good idea. It allows for an objective opinion of on-screen events to determine when things are getting ridiculous, instead of preconceived notions about a film's quality. This movie's current 8% rating on the Tomatometer and lousy word-of-mouth meant my dial was stuck on four. The obnoxious opening-night crowd with which I saw The Devil Inside had apparently left theirs running at nine or ten.

Cat-calls, laughter, dialogue call-backs, rampant texting, phone calls, seat-kicking, and just about every other signal that an audience is not locked into a story were so prevalent that I thought I'd walked into a sociology experiment by mistake. But until the last fifteen minutes or so, I couldn't understand why anyone had a problem with this movie.

Using The Blair Witch Project's shaky-cam paradigm, and combining elements of The Exorcist, Ghostbusters, and The Rite, director William Brent Bell and co-writer Matthew Peterman make minor tweaks to a familiar story. In 1989, homemaker Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley) killed three members of her church as they tried to exorcise a demon from her. Twenty years later, Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade) travels to Rome, where the Catholic church has sequestered her mother in a private mental institution for undisclosed reasons.*

Soon after touching down in Vatican City, Isabella visits the church's exorcism academy and makes fast friends with a group of priests who will eventually help her understand what's going on with mom. Ben (Simon Quaterman) grew up with an exorcist uncle, and was performing rituals before his twenties. David (Evan Helmuth), a former physician, sees his new calling as a way of healing minds and souls, as well as bodies. Isabella soon learns that Ben and David have been doing secret exorcisms on people the church has deemed unworthy of treatment. You won't be surprised to learn that they assist her in bringing dark spirits out of Maria.

I was surprised at The Devil Inside's clever bait-and-switch marketing campaign. Following the team's botched first attempt at freeing Maria, I'd expected them to regroup and return for a big showdown with Satan himself--as always happens in these movies. Indeed, much of the film's advertising focuses on Crowley's creepy rendition of "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" and that black inverted cross seared into her lower lip. But in a great turn of events, the exorcism succeeds in ways that the characters didn't count on, and neither--for the most part--did I.

This brings us to the problematic final twenty minutes, the first five of which were merely okay. If you plan to see this movie and don't want to read massive spoilers, please come back later.

Maria has been inhabited by multiple demons, one of which, naturally, claims to be the Devil. During her rites, a couple of them escape into the bodies of David and Isabella. They don't announce themselves right away, cleverly manifesting as uncharacteristic irritability and nosebleeds--which plays nicely into earlier conversations about the hierarchies of Hell and the varying powers of the damned. Our possessed heroes create suspicion and cause arguments, tearing at the strength of their friendship. Soon, one of the demons gains enough traction to take over David in church, compelling him to drown a baby during a baptism.**

Michael (Ionut Grama), the filmmaker within the film, chases David home and informs Isabella and Ben that their friend has gone nuts. Here's where things go completely off the rails. In one approximately seven-minute scene, David trashes the upstairs apartment and fights his friends; two policemen show up, one of whom struggles with the possessed priest; David grabs the cop's gun and negotiates with his friends before blowing his own head off; Isabella goes into a "seizure" and gets rushed to the hospital. So much happens, with so much shouting, crying, and melodrama, that the film's climax is not nearly as interesting or intense as I'm sure Bell and Peterman had intended.

Nor is the ending, a fantastic idea executed so poorly that my audience broke into laughter and loudly demanded refunds. I can't be sure, but The Devil Inside feels like a slow-burn movie chopped and packaged as an eighty-seven-minute, quickie-horror package. Had the filmmakers gone for subtlety instead of bombast, perhaps moving their climax up by about ten minutes to give the characters a chance to breathe and the audience a chance to absorb everything they'd wanted to say, the results could have been as cool as the ideas.

Yes, I think this is a very cool movie. It's also very flawed, but not as much as people might lead you to believe. I was unnerved by Isabella's first meeting with her mother, even though I'd seen much of it in the trailer. Crowley goes far in making up for Andrade's non-presence; in fact, the Isabella character is pretty much a cipher, an excuse to let demons strut their stuff and for exorcists to riff on church politics and ritual fetishism. My other major complaint is the over-use of Real World-style confessionals, which makes everyone come off as whinier than they needed to be.

Though the film has a lot of problems, it doesn't deserve to be written off as bad. There are enough solid ideas and well-directed scenes here that I'm sure will be expanded and improved upon by a young writer/director down the line. I'd expected to be bored and insulted by The Devil Inside. I left bored and insulted by the cheap, overzealous reactions to 2012's first easy target. The movie merely disappointed me.

Note: Major props to contortionist Bonnie Morgan, who plays a possessed Italian girl. Rather than watering down the demonic aspects of the film with CGI monster-effects, Bell employs Morgan's incredibly disturbing gifts of limb-pretzel-ing to convey supernatural damage.

*Okay, the main "undisclosed reason" is that she's possessed, but the movie must put its characters through paces that the audience skipped by looking at the poster.

**Don't worry. The kid lives.

Friday
Jan062012

Larry Crowne (2011)

Cancelling the Man Show

Recently, the National Academy of Sciences found that male testosterone levels drop significantly at the onset of fatherhood. I love this study. It's the only thing that validates my affection for Larry Crowne.

Don't be concerned. It's a mild affection, and my brain--unlike my heart--understands that this is a bad movie. It's got Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts playing a laid-off big-box store supervisor and a community-college professor, respectively--indicating that we've landed firmly in a Tolkien-esque version of modern suburbia. The characters are mostly bubbly and good-natured, and their biggest hurdles are giving stirring speeches and leaving cartoon-character spouses. I should hate this movie, but thanks to a scientifically proven softening of my rough-and-tumble instincts, I was able to enjoy the cinematic equivalent of a Saturday trip to Macy's and World Market, with an Olive Garden lunch in between.

After losing his job for not having a degree, Larry Crowne (Hanks) enrolls in his local college. His speech teacher is Mercedes Tainot (Roberts), a frustrated lifer who prays every morning for a low enough head-count to cancel the day's lesson. She sees Larry as just another face in a sea of social misfits with dwindling attention spans. Worse yet, she's married to an Internet-porn-obsessed, jobless blogger (Bryan Cranston) who claims his wife's prudishness is keeping him from being a real man.

I guarantee you can figure out the rest from here. Hanks, who directed the film and co-wrote it with Nia Vardalos, plays everything cute and harmlessly stereotypical. Larry's neighbor is a stingy black man (Cedric the Entertainer) who runs a year-round yard sale; his economics professor is a stern Asian gentleman (George Takei) who thinks he's funnier than he is; and the leader of the school's scooter gang (you read that correctly) is a tough-looking Latin kid (Wilmer Valderrama) who turns out to be a macho sweetie. Given the painfully unfunny ethnic humor in Vardalos' My Big Fat Greek Wedding, it should surprise no one that Larry Crowne plays like a Sesame Street for scared, white suburbanites--showcasing diversity while subtly reinforcing tired cultural memes.

But it's all so damned cozy! The eighteen-year-old version of myself would have broken the television way before act three. But there's something very real and comforting about steamy bowls of store-brand oatmeal like this that only adults of a certain age and level of experience can appreciate. My brain and stomach wanted to vomit when Larry did the "happy dance" outside of Mercedes' apartment door, following their first kiss (SPOILER!); my heart, though, just said, "Awww." When Larry's scooter-gang friends, prompted by the adorable Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), invaded his home to give the living room a feng shui makeover, I wished I'd had an army of hip, earnest go-getters at my disposal.

So I can recommend this movie to myself. Is there anything in it for you? Maybe. If you hate Julia Roberts, you may warm up to her here. Unlike Hanks, she has a decent stretch of believability in the middle of the film (which ends abruptly at the kissing scene, after which she becomes Rom-Com Roberts with Giggle Action). Though we're given no substantive history about her failing marriage, it's nice to see her spar with Cranston and then shuffle hesitantly into class to deal with a different brand of emotional distance.

I also love Hanks' directing--for all the wrong reasons. Just as he's become too big a Hollywood icon for audiences to see him as anything other than TOM HANKS, his attempts at innovating with the camera draw unwanted attention to themselves. Consider an early scene where Larry pulls his minivan into the driveway. The camera is mounted to the fender for a cool pseudo-fish-eye shot. But it wobbles just so, giving the jolting impression that we've momentarily cut to one of the characters in the movie shooting a first-person account of a minivan pulling into a driveway.

If Larry Crowne's premise sounds at all interesting to you, I suggest skipping this movie and indulging in a marathon of NBC's Community, followed by Morgan Mead's My Name is Jerry. These genre-bending, out-of-the-box comedies explore mid-life crises and low-cost higher education in challenging ways that would likely never occur to Hanks and Vardalos. They're also hilarious and touching, and should be viewed well in advance of fatherhood.

Wednesday
Jan042012

Foxy Brown (1974)

Who's Exploited Now, Bitch?

I love pop culture, but it doesn't always love me back. Case in point: for years, it told me, very convincingly, that the 1970s were a cheesy decade of ridiculous frivolity, and that black cinema in particular was something to be avoided. From I'm Gonna Git You Sucka to Austin Powers 3 to Black Dynamite, all I've known of the era is big afros, nunchakus, and angry cries of "Jive turkey!". Aside from a midnight viewing of Dolemite in the late 90s--which didn't help--I'd never bothered to delve into blaxploitation cinema until today.

It was probably Jack Hill's name that lured me to Foxy Brown--not only because he helmed another new favorite, Spider Baby, but because I wanted to see if a white, male writer/director tackling a female-centric black action movie would be as big a potential train wreck as it sounds. Far from it, Hill's fable of urban decay and revenge is an eye-opening triumph of genre filmmaking as social commentary.

Pam Grier stars as Foxy Brown, the no-nonsense girlfriend of federal agent Michael Anderson (Terry Carter). Anderson has just emerged from deep cover on a failed narcotics investigation, complete with a new face and identity. He plans a quiet life with Foxy, but her drug-dealing brother, Link (Antonio Fargas) sells his secret to the crime lord Michael almost brought down. Michael is executed by thugs in front of Foxy's home, and she vows to avenge him.

The path to justice, in this case, is paved in sleaze. Foxy must pose as a high-society call-girl in order to infiltrate the organization of Katherine Wall (Kathryn Loder), a powerful fashion magnate who wields her money and influence in service of a global drug cartel. Katherine's staff includes racist hit men and an emotionally distant second-in-command named Steve (Peter Brown). Their wealth and pride leave a wide door for the unassuming Foxy to storm through.

Unlike other female-empowerment films of the decade, such as I Spit on Your Grave and Thriller, Foxy doesn't become a one-person killing machine. She's tough and resourceful, but after being overpowered by goons, shipped off to a ranch, and shot up with heroin to make her a more supple sex slave, Foxy realizes she'll need support in order to win. The film's climax involves one of the coolest, most over-the-top botched drug deals ever, complete with a fully strapped black-power army, castration and villains meeting their end in the blades of a spinning propeller.

The plot I've just described is ridiculous. But Hill and his actors are one hundred percent committed to it, making Foxy Brown a serious film to contend with. Aside from a male stunt man subbing for Grier during a car chase and a screechy, awful supporting actress (no need for names; she's unmistakable), very little about the movie is worthy of ridicule. In fact, beneath the shocking bursts of violence, rampant nudity and surprisingly liberal use of the word "nigger", lies a message of hope, unity and diversity.

Link gives a weird but touching soliloquy early on when Foxy berates him for wasting his life as a pusher: he argues that he doesn't fit any of the molds that white society has established for a legitimate black man, so his only way to make it in the world is through crime. Agree or disagree, he makes a compelling point whose degree of self-awareness feels refreshingly out of place in a movie like this.

Growing up, I thought that blaxploitation was a bad thing; that even though African-Americans were the heroes of a genre whose protagonists reclaimed power from an oppressive, white establishment, there was a racist undercurrent in the way they were portrayed. Whether true or not, Hill's treatment of his characters shows a deep affinity for black culture, in the same vein as his unofficial successor, Quentin Tarantino. Drugs, crime, and violence are prevalent in Foxy Brown, but the hero lives (to borrow a corny ad slogan) above the influence. Foxy does her best to keep her family and community clean, and is written as a classic code hero--reluctant, but up for any challenge when pushed.

In fairness, this film likely wouldn't have been nearly as successful without Grier. This is my first real exposure to her outside of Tarantino's Jackie Brown, and it's a hell of a re-introduction. She's famous for being sexy, but I was incredibly charmed by her alternating warmth and cold-blooded determination. Foxy often finds herself in strange and/or dangerous situations, but Grier's groundedness keeps her from becoming a cartoon character or an action figure. Her showdown with Katherine Hall at the end of the picture is positively delicious, and when Grier delivers her primal shout of the word "bitch", you'll feel it in your bones.

One of my just-drafted New Year's Resolutions is to give blaxploitation a second look. If even half the films are as un-ironically entertaining as Foxy Brown, I'll have to sit pop culture down and find out what other secrets it's been hiding from me.

Monday
Jan022012

The Iron Giant (1999)

The (Emotional) Wrecking Crew

The other night, I realized a dream--a majorly minor dream, but a dream nonetheless: I finally saw The Iron Giant on the big screen. Like so many people who could have saved the film from flopping on initial release, I didn't catch Brad Bird's 2D masterpiece until it hit home video. But thanks to a two-night revival at Chicago's Patio Theatre, the film's scale and invention came to greater life for me than ever before.

Essentially a 1950's-set remake of E.T., The Iron Giant tells the story of Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal), a latchkey kid who discovers that a several-hundred-foot-tall alien robot has crash-landed in the woods near his town. The only person he can trust with this secret is a beatnik artist named Dean (Harry Connick Jr.), who offers the giant sanctuary in his junk yard. Following up on satellite reports and eyewitness accounts is ultra-paranoid federal agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), who'll stop at nothing to destroy what he believes to be either an alien or communist menace.

Bird and co-writer Tim McCanlies (working from Ted Hughes' book) deliver a perfect blend of comedy, drama, and old-fashioned adventure. Hogarth's world doesn't fit pop culture's typical ideas of the era; he has no friends or father, and his mom (Jennifer Aniston) constantly works double shifts at the local diner to make ends meet. The threat of nuclear annihilation permeates his life, from overheard town gossip to TV shows and comic books about irradiated brain monsters. True, The Iron Giant looks like a cute nostalgia trip, but Bird and company infuse their story with enough unsettling background details to suggest a far more adult story.

Into this mix comes the giant (Vin Diesel), a metal-eating innocent who learns to communicate by imitating Hogarth. In a refreshing twist, we don't get an origin story--only a pre-climax revelation that beneath the kind-eyed, sleek exterior lurks an arsenal of futuristic killing machines that overreacts to the sight of weaponry. This paves the way for a pretty unique kids' movie lesson: Hogarth, taking a cue from Dean's Espresso-enhanced Zen philosophy, tells the giant, "You are what you choose to be".

Though I've seen the movie at least six times in the last decade, the climax never fails to choke me up. The giant's bond with Hogarth and Dean leads to a touching, beautifully conceived moment of sacrifice that's as powerful as any bit of live-action drama. Where many cartoons go for bombastic showdowns, The Iron Giant culminates in a moment of quiet panic and quick decisions; it's a testament to Bird's and McCanlies' skills that they perfectly balance a bone-chilling doomsday scenario with humor and heart-tugging.

One thing I noticed this time around is how jarring it is to see 2D animation nowadays. Most big-screen animated releases are CG, and even most children's TV programming has moved in that direction. In the last few years, I've been on a steady diet of Pixar (and Disney's attempts to become Pixar). It's all very impressive, but watching the scene in which the giant cannonballs into a lake and washes Dean away in his folding chair is a stark reminder that these things were once drawn by hand.

I don't mean to put down computer animators, but the trade-off of most films now being "made in the computer" is a diminishing of the How'd-They-Do-It factor. At a certain point, the audience takes for granted that the tech wizards behind a movie can make anything happen--which can make the extraordinary seem ordinary. But solid, traditional animation--in the right hands--wows every time.

Case in point: the giant is actually a 3D-animated character that's been shaded to look like his 2D co-stars. For the most part, the technique blends well--it's a bit wonky, but nothing so distracting that people will be pulled out of the movie. However, in the late-picture transformation scene, where the giant's big guns come out, the late-90s CG becomes a bit more glaring. Fortunately, the form and function of the weapons are so out-there that they contribute to the "alien" quality of the animation (the same can't be said for the animated ocean waves in the beginning and end of the film, which, by today's standards, practically look like unfinished effects).

These are just some things you may notice, and should in no way subtract from your enjoyment of this wonderful film. This is still my favorite film of Bird's, as it feels the most personal. The reality he paints here is so vivid, it's as if he'd lived the story and retained enough to retell it precisely; in a way, The Iron giant is also like Stand By Me--but with a big, metal Martian and three less messed-up kids. Even if you didn't grow up in the 50s surrounded by secrets and danger, chances are you'll appreciate the breadth and honesty of the storytellers' hearts.

Sunday
Jan012012

The Innkeepers (2011)

Haunt Con

Early last week, Ti West asked fans not to pirate his latest film, The Innkeepers--which came to Video On Demand Thursday, more than a month ahead of a limited theatrical release. After having paid ten bucks to watch it from my couch, I can honestly say the director needs to develop a stronger argument against illegal downloading and distribution.

I should clarify: I don't advocate piracy under any circumstances. But if West believes people should pay for movies, it's his responsibility to give them something worth paying for (not legally, of course, but in terms of the artistic/social contract that I just made up). As someone who loves The House of the Devil and the criminally ignored Cabin Fever 2, I relied very heavily on faith and good will to get me through The Innkeepers.* For newcomers to West's work, I can only imagine the confusion and cheated feelings that lie ahead.

The movie poster would have you believe that this is a haunted-hotel story; the last fifteen minutes are, for sure, but the hour-and-a-quarter leading up to it is like Clerks--minus the colorful customers and witty dialogue. Sarah Paxton and Pat Healy star as Claire and Luke, the two remaining staff members of the soon-to-be-closed Yankee Pedlar Inn. On the last weekend of operation, their clients include a mother hiding her son from an abusive husband, a former film and television star whose new calling involves crystals and spiritual awakening, and an elderly man determined to stay the night in the room he and his wife shared on their honeymoon.

Claire and Luke bide their time amusing each other with Internet videos and developing a Web site for paranormal-activity enthusiasts. In the wee hours, Claire wanders the downstairs rooms with EVP equipment in the hopes of capturing evidence of the ghost who supposedly haunts the inn. No points for guessing that the creepy piano in the parlor starts playing itself, or that the recorder picks up the muffled cries of a dead woman. And if you think the kooky former celebrity might have a connection to the netherworld after all, congrats on seeing at least two of the five thousand movies like this one.

What's remarkable about The Innkeepers is how unremarkable it is. The actors do really well conveying both the late-night snark of bored hipsters and the world-weary defensiveness of faded celeb glory, but the ghost part of this ghost story is heart-breakingly vanilla. It doesn't help that West tries to mix things up with comedy by having Claire and Luke play pranks on each other. I get that these are the stupid distractions of bored characters, but the audience shouldn't feel that way about the distractions themselves.

I was also surprised by the utter lack of creepy atmosphere. Until the tense but ultimately unsatisfying climax, The Innkeepers feels like one of the early-80s spook shows Nickelodeon used to run. The House of the Devil proved that West can terrify an audience by simply showing someone sitting in a creepy house, so to see a similar storyline come up short is a major let-down. This movie would make a great forray into more adult notions of horror for pre-teens who are used to excessive gore and ADD-editing--but for adults, the only suspense will come in hoping against hope that there's more to the story than a grade-school production of The Shining (complete with a closing push-in on a wall-mounted picture).

The one thing that sparked my interest was the psychic character, Leanne Rease-Jones, played by Kelly McGillis. A shrink could have a field day with West, whose screenplay draws uncanny comparisons to real-life actress (and House of the Devil co-star) Dee Wallace. The star of Cujo and The Howling has, in recent years, become a teacher of spirituality. I don't know much about it, but at conventions she sells crystals and consciousness-expansion books right alongside 8 x 10 glossies of herself posing with E.T.**

Claire and Luke are relentless in their critique of Leanne, calling her a washed-up phony clinging to relevance. But the movie finds her to be absolutely correct in her assertions about what's going on at the inn. One must question, then, West's true feelings about spirituality, celebrity, and Dee Wallace. A good chunk of this film--the compelling chunk--is like a love-hate letter written to a former co-worker, and I'd kill for a chance to watch these two hash out their issues on camera (assuming there are any, and that The Innkeepers isn't a purely fabricated work). At least that would carry some suspense and an unexpected outcome with it.

Again, this is a qualifier. If you knew nothing about Wallace's career, the Leanne storyline wouldn't hold any significance beyond the script's machinations. You'd just be left with a mostly atmosphere-free story about bitter clerks sitting in an empty building, waiting for something to happen. Getting back to my original point about piracy, this is exactly the kind of thing that hard-working horror fans don't need to go out of their way to spend money on. It's better left to Netflix Instant Watch.

As a huge Ti West fan, it hurts to say these things--especially since he needs asses in seats to continue making movies. But The Innkeepers is for completists only, a botched exercise whose supporters will pay twice for the writer/director's mistakes.

*I also relied on a fifteen-minute cat-nap at the half-way mark--which, depending on your point of view, is either a major perk or a major flaw in the Video On Demand system.

**This isn't a dig, merely a fact. From the few interactions I've had with Dee, she's a lovely lady who doesn't push her beliefs on anyone--but who is eager to discuss them once invited to do so.