Friday, April 26, 2013

Movie Review: "Adventureland" by David Pretty

At some point in time every High School kid must contend with that supremely unique rite of debasement: the crappy summer job.  Adventureland tries to tap into this shared experience, but instead of focusing on the job itself it shoe-horns a touching, coming-of-age romance into the proceedings.  This would have been fine if it wasn't overburdened by distracting performances and a host of script contrivances.

With his well-to-do parents sending him away to Europe as a High School grad present, James (Jesse Eisenberg) is gearing up for an awesome summer.  Unfortunately James is forced to abandon his trip and start prospecting for work after his Dad takes a major financial spill.  The only job he can find is working at "Adventureland" a crappy theme park featuring vomit-inducing rides and crooked games of chance, which is  supervised by the borderline-delusional husband-and-wife team of Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig).

But things aren't completely grim.  He meets the bitter, eccentric and sarcastic Joel (Martin Starr), and the two bond over shared miseries.  He also strikes up a friendship with fellow game-jockey Em (Kristen Stewart) and there's immediate sparkage between the two.  Naturally,complications arise in the form of a married philanderer named Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds) and prototypical Eighties siren Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva).  Pretty soon their tentative romance is threatened by infidelity and doubt.

Although Adventureland is made by the same creative team as Superbad, it isn't as gut-bustingly funny as its predecessor.  Frankly this doesn't bother me since the relationships between the characters and the trials they endure in Adventureland could have given the film an enduring, Fast Times at Ridgemont High kinda vibe.  Unfortunately, the characters only seem to act in accordance to the daft requirements of the script or do inexplicably stupid things just to create a beat of complication.

For example, it's exceeding difficult to sympathize with Kristen Stewart's character.  Indeed, many of her actions seem indicative of some pretty hefty mental issues.  It also doesn't help that Kristen is stuck in full broody "Bella" mode here.  Even though the script calls for her to be somewhat fucked up by the loss of her mom, her Dad's re-marriage and her own history of disastrous relationships, nothing seems to test her capabilities as an actress here.  As a result, we're subjected to endless scenes of her exhaling, biting her lip and swiping hair out of her face.

I also really wanted to like good ol' Canadian boy Ryan Reynolds but the screenwriters paint Mike in such a inherently creepy fashion that his clean-cut charisma makes him seem miscast.  Jesse Eisenberg, now a bona fide hot property thanks to flicks like Zombieland and The Social Network, fares much better.  He's so sincerely earnest and genuinely awkward that it's easier to stick with him even when he's doing inconceivably stupid things like driving drunk and pursuing the vapid-yet-inexplicably-coveted Lisa P.

Martin Starr is also fun to watch as the film's prerequisite "McLovin"-style dweeb, but a pipe, bad hair and a fetish for Russian literature doesn't a three-dimensional character make.  Fortunately, the writers gives Starr some of the movie's best lines and he makes the best of it with some hilarious deliveries.

Speaking of hilarious, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are totally gung-ho as the park's slightly-unstable park owners.  Bill does righteous indignation brilliantly and the scene in which he tries to convince James to give it his all while calling a horse race game is pure money.  It's also a challenge to catch all of Kristen Wiig's mumbling, semi-incoherent lines since you're usually still laughing at the last audible thing you heard her say.

The colorful mise-en-scene, bitchin' soundtrack and myriad of amusing Eighties-era trappings also makes for some fun and nostalgic viewing.  But, honestly, what's on display in Adventureland is certainly no more evocative than, say, Freaks and Geeks.  Not only did Judd Apatow's brief-but-brilliant T.V. classic offer up a more authentic representation of this "classic" decade, it also did a better job covering teen angst and drama in a genuinely funny way.

Up until the very last reel I was hoping for a bold, original masterstroke from the script, since, tonally, this seemed to be what the film-makers were preparing us for.  Instead, everything gets wrapped up such in a neat little bow that viewers will be left wondering if this is, in all actually, the worst possible ending for these protagonists.

      Tilt: down.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Movie Review: "The Fourth Kind" by David Pretty

There's a line in a song by Modest Mouse that goes: "A fake Jamaican took every last dime with that scam" / "It was worth it just to learn some sleight-of-hand."  Songwriter Isaac Brock is apparently a lot more forgiving then I am.  If The Fourth Kind was a fraudulent Caribbean grifter I'd find the bastard and chuck him down the nearest flight of steps.  This film pulled me in, thrilled me and then pissed me off when I caught it trying to straighten the "sucker" sign on my back.

The film posits that the town of Nome, Alaska has been ground zero for a series of mysterious disappearances since the 1960's.  The story begins with a straight-faced Milla Jovovich telling as that we're about to witness a "very disturbing" expose based on an "actual case study", using "never before seen archival footage" and a series of "dramatic re-enactments" to fill in the narrative.  Taken at face value, The Fourth Kind could have been the greatest episode of Unsolved Mysteries EVAR.

After this intriguing premise we're witness to a genuine-looking interview recorded in 2002 at Chapman University between clinical psychologist Dr. Abigail Tyler and the film's director Olatunde Osunsanmi.  She begins by recounting the mysterious and violent death of her husband who was also a trained psychologist.  After this atmospheric and creepy prologue, the story begins in earnest and Milla re-appears to assume the role of "Dr. Tyler" for the dramatizations. 

In light of her husband's tragic demise, Dr. Tyler is depicted as damaged goods who struggles to keep what remains of her family intact.  Despite her challenges, she throws herself back into her work and begins seeing some of her husband's former patients.  After a series of just-quirky-enough-to-be-real details leads the audience to believe that what they're watching is indeed factual, the film's producers start layering on the chills.  Abigail is unnerved when she discovers that an inordinate amount of Nome's resident are suffering from sleep deprivation and have experienced eerily similar, David Lynchian-style dreams involving owls, bedroom doors creaking open and traumatic home invasions.

After one patient confronts the buried memories via hypnosis the emerging trauma sends him over the deep end and he kills his wife and kids at gunpoint later that same evening.  Alarmingly, we shown footage of this, supposedly recovered from a police cruiser dash camera and "edited" for propriety. The creep factor is amped up even more when Abigail leaves her tape recorder running one night and it captures some disturbing audio which is sure to send hackles down even the most jaded spine.

This perfect storm of creepiness continues to percolate after Abigail uses hypnosis to help another encounter victim recall the appearance of their assailant.  The resulting jump-scare is one of the first to suck me in since I began watching horror films nearly thirty years ago.  So far, so good, huh?

Unfortunately The Fourth Kind's scares aren't built to last.  At the mid-way point, the unconscious, analytical and skeptical part of the brain kicks in and begins asking a flood of nagging questions.  BE WARNED: THERE BE SPOILERS HERE!  Most immediately, the recurring "interview footage" starts to resemble a fraudulent performance.  Then you begin to wonder why people keep going back to a psychologist who's patients habitually commit suicide, murder their families or, at the very least, are left in a vegetative mental state after a session.  Picking Milla Jovovich to play a hottie version of the "real" Dr. Tyler also comes off as a ridiculously contrived.

To make matters worse, whenever anything vaguely odd happens, the video conveniently breaks up into a sea of distortion. I can understand this happening if a UFO was flying overhead, but why would this occur during the hypnosis sessions?  In another lazy scripted convenience, two perfectly credible witnesses inexplicably sell Abigail down the river by refusing to corroborate her story, even when she's in dire need of help.  By the mid-way point in the film, things stop making sense and the entire edifice crumbles.  

If you insist on believing in this Easter Bunny of a film, do not make the mistake of watching the DVD's deleted scenes.  After you hear an assistant director yell "ACTION!" at the start of the supposedly "real" cop car dash camera video the illusion will immediately implode.  Indeed, the movie's sole intent is make the audience feel like a bunch of naive dupes.  Anyone who buys into the producer's claims that is "a real case study" is bound to feel pretty pissed off at the end. 

Unlike The Blair Witch Project, where the illusion was generated by ambiguous promotional gimmicks, The Fourth Kind is built entirely around subterfuge.  The director, the cast and the producers all go out of their way to tell us that every scene is supported by "archival footage" but we're free to "make up our own minds" about its veracity.  This is particularly galling since the "Abigail Tyler" in the interview footage has long-since been outed as British actress Charlotte Milchard.

Unfortunately, the producers took what could have been a creepy and subtle little Paranormal Activity-type experience and turned in a three card monte scam.  As a result, The Fourth Kind is nothing but an inconsequential cinematic non-entity: a hoax so transparent you can even see the strings. 

Tilt: down.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Movie Review: "Centurion" by David Pretty

If nothing else, Centurion proves that the Roman invasion of Northern Britain and its rabid defense by the native population is actually a cautionary warning that history has a tendency to repeat itself.

Stop me if you've heard this one: the most powerful modern army on earth attempts to subjugate a remote, "uncivilized" part of the world.  They soon discover that for all of their high-tech equipment, elite training and battlefield honor, this "superior" force must now contend with an enemy that will employ any available tactic to mercilessly eliminate them as a foreign presence.

Modern parable aside, director Neil Marshall (who's already given us such solid exploitative fare as Dog Soldiers and Descent) uses his directorial soapbox to tell a harrowing action tale that's one part The Warriors, one part Gladiator and one part Saving Private Ryan.

Michael Fassbender plays Quintus Dias, a Roman centurion who's captured in a raid when the Picts attack a Roman outpost.  He's brought before their fearsome leader Gorlecon (Ulrich Thomsen), who is intent on wiping out every single Roman soldier in revenge over his slaughtered family.  In an effort to curry favor with Rome and earn the right to go back home, the Roman governor of Brittania dispatches the fabled Ninth Spanish Legion to Caledonia.  He gives the Legion's commander, General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West), a single command: eradicate every single Pict they can find.

They're joined by a beautiful but lethal mercenary scout named Etain who's been tasked to lead the Roman army to their foes.  En route they come across Dias who's barely managed to escape.  He calls into question Etain's loyalties but his warnings go unheeded.  Eventually the scout reveals that she too has suffered immensely under the cruel hand of the Roman invaders and had her eye squarely fixed on vengeance.  Thanks to her tip-off, the Roman army is nearly decimated.

Dias and six other centurion survivors undertake a dangerous trek into the heart of enemy territory in order to rescue the captured Virilus.  At every step, the party is mercilessly assailed by starvation, the weather, internal treachery, wolf packs, Pictish patrols and Etain herself, who is soon revealed as death incarnate.

For the most part, Centurion is an adrenaline-fueled gauntlet that features one harrowing threat after another.  Although the script could have given us few more reasons to care about the harried Romans, the principal actors do a decent job charcoal-sketching their distinct personalities.  Standouts include Michael Fassbender as the stalwart and empathetic Quintus Dias and Dominic West as the brash, overconfident but undeniably noble Flavius Virilus.

Some of the minor players also get a chance to shine.  Liam Cunningham's criminally underused "Brick" becomes an indomitable force as well as a welcome font of comic relief.  Olga Kurylenko is also hypnotic as Etain.  She's convincingly lethal and single-mindedly relentless, kinda like Michael Myers but with warpaint and ovaries.  Anytime she appears on-screen we know that things are gonna get very crazy, very fast.

Watching the film is an interesting experience for anyone who's studied British history.  At first I was irked by the film's fast and loose treatment of the facts, but the denouement referencing  Hadrian's Wall had me chuckling to myself.  Marshall's hypothesis regarding the ultimate fate of the legendary Legio Nona Hispana is also worth pondering.

Unfortunately, Centurion has a couple of irksome issues.  At times the script feels half-baked, homogenized, and color-by numbers, like an inordinately bloody T.V. movie of the week.  I'm also painfully bored by these sweeping, panoramic, helicopter-style camera shots that show people inexplicably running along the highest summit of snow-covered mountains.  Seriously, wouldn't it make more sense to go around these friggin' things?

Mercifully, there are plenty of devious traps, daring escapes and rolling balls of flaming pitch to make up for it.  The morbidly-creative gore effects also helps to offset the "attention-deficit-disorder" editing style that plagues many of the film's fight sequences.

Although somewhat of a mixed bag, Centurion is still a rollicking ride set in a very real but savagely unfamiliar period of human history.

Tilt: up.