Sitting not terribly far beneath the surface of Apart is the best young adult movie you've ever seen. There are times-more than a few of them-that movie almost managed to come bubbling to the surface. Rottinghaus, normally an assistant editor (he has recently had a steady gig on the hit TV show Big Love), went very, very ambitious with his directorial debut. He almost succeeded. The story, which he co-wrote with male lead Josh Danziger, could have probably used another rewrite or two to help knock some of the less coherent bits into line; that would have made this into something that would have had a very, very good chance of landing pretty high up on my thousand-best list. Yes, the movie under the surface here is that good. Unfortunately, it has a nasty habit of shooting itself in the foot. That doesn't mean you shouldn't watch it-in fact, I think you probably should, and sooner rather than later-but you may well end up as frustrated as I was at getting the movie we got given how often you can see the movie we should have had.
Noah (Danziger, whose only other big-screen appearance to date came in 2006's The Lonely Ones) has been Away, in the sense that one is Away in movies, for some time. He has recently returned to his childhood hometown, of which he has no memory whatever. High school is just as much fun as it is anywhere, else, but soon he encounters Emily (High School Musical's Olesya Rulin), and suddenly he has a reason to go to high school. She, on the other hand, seems to want nothing to do with him, and Noah assumes it's just a case of unrequited infatuation. Until, that is, Emily lets slip during an emotional outburst that she knew Noah Before, in the sense that one has Before in movies. Suddenly, Noah has a link to his mysterious past, and he sets about trying to unlock a mystery he had given up on ever understanding.
A lot of good ideas here, but the script stumbles in a number of places. It occurred to me more than once while I was watching that the co-writers should have had a solid, underrated YA author-Mara Purnhagen or Pete Hautman or someone comparable-go over the script before they finalized it to check plot and pacing. Some of the more questionable scenes could have been streamlined, a few unanswered questions would have been wrapped up, etc. What's here will likely be more appealing to those who can recognize and appreciate the potential in a script, but what's here is not bad at all. ** 1/2
Less than a minute into Jim Mickle's reimagining-one cannot call it a remake with a straight face-of Jorge Grau's fine 2010 film Somos lo que Hay, he has already made it plain to the viewer who has seen the previous film that We Are What We Are is a different movie indeed. The two movies start with the same event; the death of the head of a family. While that death is never explained in the 2010 film (the family gets a visit from the coroner about two-thirds of the way through this version with a cause of death, not that it matters), the two of them are virtually identical in the method in which each family member dies; it starts with a nosebleed, descends quickly into convulsions, and within seconds that person has shuffled off this mortal coil. It is the circumstances surrounding the two deaths that make all the difference. When Papa does in the 2010 film, he is in a large city. He is surrounded by people, yet he is utterly alone and anonymous. (One of the movie's finest, funniest, blackest scenes is the revelation of what happens to him after his death, which takes place in the following minute or so.) In the 2013 film, Emma Parker (Evil Dead II's Kassie DePaiva) is trying to beat a coming storm in a small backwoods town somewhere in Appalachia, frantically grabbing groceries, but still managing to have time to have a conversation with the clerk at the general store. (Yes, this town is small enough to still have a general store.) In the space of a couple of minutes, Jim Mickle has changed the sex of the dying parent and the type of city in which the family lives. This should be creating a string of "what if?"s in the head of any viewer who has seen the original movie. It is to Jim Mickle (Mulberry St.)'s credit that instead of doing this and then trying to shoehorn the rest of the movie into remake territory, he gives us, essentially, an entirely new film based on those "what if?"s. And it is a good one indeed, Jim Mickle's best film to date.
After Emma's death, her husband Frank (Mysterious Skin's Bill Sage), is distraught enough that his daughters, Iris (The Master's Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Martha Marcy May Marlene's Julia Garner), have to step up and take charge. Well, that's the way it looks at first, but here's where those amazing what-ifs start cascading; Emma and her family, it seems, are from a long line that stems from an entirely matriarchal culture, and so Frank is stuck playing second fiddle and, occasionally, enforcer. This is especially the case when the girls' younger brother Rory (Every Secret Thing's Jack Gore in his screen debut) starts to get close to Marge (Top Gun's Kelly McGillis), their nearest neighbor, and the friendship between the two threatens to expose the Parkers' long-held secrets.
Perhaps the biggest change to the original film is when those secrets are revealed. They become obvious in the original film not long after the two children (sons in that one) are forced to take over the family; here, they are held back longer, turned into a Big Reveal(TM). This could be because I've seen the original and am a fan of it, but I didn't think the skeletons in the family's closet were really as big a deal as that would lead one to think; in many ways, that seems to me the weakest link in this otherwise very good film. I hesitate to say that this is the best way to remake a movie, but it is certainly a far sight better than the vast majority of remakes that have been coming out of Hollywood for the past ten or so years. Imaginations ran wild when Mickle and longtime partner in crime Nick Damici were putting this script together, and most everything falls into place pretty nicely; those pieces that had to be forced or shimmed are minor, really, and We Are What We Are is a worthy descendant of the original film that manages to blaze its own trail successfully. *** 1/2
It took me until ten minutes before the end of the movie to figure it out, but once it did, the whole movie (which, I rush to add, I already loved) made perfect sense: American Mary is one of the best examples of modern Film Noir that I have seen in recent memory. I watched it after I had finished up my Best I Watched list for 2013, and so I made the entirely arbitrary decision to put American Mary at #26 on that list; it may rise in a later revision. Yes, it's that good.
Plot: Mary (Ginger Snaps' Katharine Isabelle) is a med school student with a whole lot of money problems-in other words, she doesn't have any. This leads to some complications in her personal life, one of which gets her involved with small-time mobster Billy Barker (Elegy's Antonio Cupo). Billy offers her five thousand dollars, no questions asked, to perform an operation. She accepts, finding herself pulling bullets out of one of his associates. She draws the line there, telling him she'll never do that kind of work again, but Beatress (Darkest Hour's Tristan Risk), a stripper at Billy's club, gets Mary's number and asks her to do some grey-market plastic surgery. The money is far better, and she once again says yes. Now her money problems are temporarily forestalled, but a nasty incident (I'm being understated there) with some personnel from the school bring her back into Billy's circles again, and extreme plastic surgery, it turns out, is far more to her liking than pulling bullets out of mobsters OR attending lectures...
It is well-nigh impossible to go wrong with Katherine Isabelle, who shows hard evidence yet again that she has the acting chops behind the looks. Why she is not on the same level, both in salary and exposure, of Jennifer Lawrence is as beyond me now as it was the first time I saw Ginger Snaps. When she gets the proper script to back her up, she is basically unstoppable, and in American Mary she gets it. Usually I end up dinging a film for the kind of mismarketing this movie got (marketing a noir film as a horror movie), but in all honesty, I feel sort of spoilery telling you this is noir at all, because that revelation was such a key to my enjoyment here. But there's no way I can explain to you why this movie is so amazing without that. Mary's progression here is almost step-for-step the same as Walter Neff's in Double Indemnity or Joe Gillis' in Sunset Blvd. Both of those films feature a lead whose profession draws him into the web that ends up pinning him to the pavement; the same, with variations, is true of Mary, and again, in each case the decisions the characters make seem reasonable, or would if you didn't realize that no decision the main character makes in a noir has the possibility of being a good one. It's a schadenfreude that has always played well with American audiences. The only difference here is that American movie scripts have gotten somewhat more subtle, and more adventurous with the conventions of genre, as we've moved into the twenty-first century. This leaves us open to believing that the noir hero may, in fact, be capable of getting away with it, whatever the "it" may be. But you know Damocles is sitting just behind the curtain, giggling, with one of the blades of his pair of scissors resting against the spiderweb. And as Cully Sawyer says in the unfairly-maligned Tobe Hooper reimagining of 'Salem's Lot, "this trigger has a three-pound pull, and I got about two and a half on it right now." I continue to be amazed that a genre film can keep me on the edge of my seat, even if I'm 90% sure I know where it's going to end up. And American Mary did just that. *** 1/2
White Oleander (Peter Kosminsky, 2002) [originally posted 4Nov2002]
When a veteran director of awful TV movies helms the moving adaptation of an Oprah novel, the average viewer should probably be prepared for the worst. And from that point of view, this film is quite the pleasant surprise. It certainly beats the pants of other painfully bad Oprah-novel adaptations like The Deep End of the Ocean.
Kosminsky (whose only other big-screen appearance was an ill-thought-out but well-cast adaptation of Wuthering Heights a decade before this-remember that description, as it will become relevant here in a few minutes) and scriptwriter Mary Agnes Donoghue (Beaches, Deceived) take Janet Fitch's dysfunction-junction novel and pare out a good deal of the character development, leaving lots of action and a tale that centers more fully on the character of Astrid Magnusson (Alison Lohman, here doing her best Karen Carpenter impersonation). Problem is, while it's nice to have a strong central character, what they got rid of was in some places central to understanding what was going on in the film (for example, the sequence of events that land Astrid's mother Ingrid [Michelle Pfeiffer] in prison at the beginning of the film, which makes no sense to folks who haven't read the book).
Balancing out the plot holes and jerking around is a set of exceptionally well-drawn characters. Lohman and Pfeiffer both carry their roles quite well, and are backed up with an excellent supporting cast. Special mention should go to Renee Zellweger, who turns in the best job to date in her career, and Patrick Fugit (all gorwn up and not recognizable as the same annoying kid who got such a welcome comeuppance in the godawful TV movie Marabunta! a few years ago), Astrid's best pal and on-again off-again lover (whoops, they cut tat bit out of the movie. too...). Cole Hauser also turns in a fine performance, as he usually does; his role is cut down to the absolute basics, and is one of the places where the movie would have benefited from being a good half-hour or so longer.
All in all, it's a reprise of last year's In the Bedroom; some fine performances of some well-written characters in the midst of a script that never quite comes together. ** 1/2
Growth is one of those movies about which a whole lot of people are unloading a whole lot of calumny over on the IMDB boards. I've got an hypothesis about that (don't I always?). A lot of the things folks are saying-and I add, even before we get into it, that most of them are accurate-are the kinds of things that people say about movies that inspire ennui, not ire; it's boring, it's got plotholes you can drive a truck through, the acting is awful (that one I will dispute, at least in part, later on), the script is worse, etc. Nothing you haven't seen in hundreds of other DTV low-budget special effects extravaganzas. I think the reason that one has drawn so much hatred is that somewhere under the surface of this movie is a really, really good-perhaps great-movie. I think people are reacting to that, rather than the film we got. And that is a valid approach to criticizing the movie. But on the other hand, that also tends to give short shrift where it is, perhaps, undeserved; if you can separate what could have been from what is and overlook a few shortcomings that really are as bad as people make them out to be, this is actually not an awful way to kill ninety minutes if you're a fan of creepy-crawly horror.
Plot: researchers in a secret genetic lab on a remote island make a breakthrough in 1989, but it ends up getting loose and causing a massacre. Fast-forward twenty years. Jamie Ackerman (Magic Mike's Mircea Monroe), who escaped the terror of that night, and a handful of her friends return to the sparsely-populated island to sell her family's property. But something feels off. Larkin (Office Space's Richard Riehle), the mayor, warns her away almost as soon as she sets foot on the island, and the rest of the islanders look at her as if they haven't eaten in weeks and she's a steak. She and her crew, poking around the remains of her father's old laboratory, uncover evidence that whatever he discovered might not have been completely eradicated. Jamie realizes that her real estate adventure may be a tougher sell than she realized.
Okay, yes, this movie is dumb. But if you're picking apart the science in a horror movie, I submit that perhaps you're thinking about it a little too hard. This isn't a movie about science, it's a movie about nasty special effects. Think of it as Slugs for the serial-killer generation. That doesn't totally redeem it, of course-though one wonders how much it would if Cowan had had the kind of budget that made Alien vs. Predator into one of the best, and yet stupidest, turn-your-brain-off-and-have-fun movies of the past decade-but it's enough to get some enjoyment out of what you're seeing. If you want a creepy-crawly movie, and everything else in your collection you've seen too many times, check this out. Go into it with no expectations and you'll have some fun with it. **