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Wes Craven has long been a thriller/horror director, from the original A Nightmare on Elm Street to the iconic 90s slasher Scream. In 2005, he made Red Eye, a claustrophobic thriller that relies on its two young leads to make the most of its simple premise.
Rachel McAdams plays Lisa, a hotel manager who hates to fly. She's about to hate it a lot more, thanks to the very menacing Jackson (played by Cillian Murphy) and his ice blue eyes. In perhaps the most contrived terrorist plot ever, Jackson threatens Lisa during a red eye flight to Miami with a choice: She can call her hotel and move the director of Homeland Security into a specific room so that Jackson's employers can kill him, or she can have her father killed by an associate of Jackson if she doesn't make that call.
When Lisa first meets Jackson, waiting for their delayed flight, he's quite a charmer. He buys her a drink before they get on the plane and realize that they sit right next to each other. It's not until the plane has taken off and there's nowhere to go that Murphy transitions perfectly from mysterious and intriguing to psychotic and ruthless.
Craven builds on the naturally tight setting of an airplane with extremely close shots, especially on Murphy's face as he intimidates his victim with murderous stares. The bulk of the film takes place on the plane ride, and it's here where it's at its best. Tons of suspense and tension, and although the other passengers are given the minimalest of roles, it doesn't matter because the leads are so adept.
Rachel McAdams is cute and forceful as Lisa. One of the best things about Craven's films is his consistently powerful female protagonists, and Lisa is no different. She's a take-charge, competent, and successful individual, whose only flaw seems to be that she's a bit too focused on her career. Despite the different ways that any one of us might react to her situation, it's still easy to root for her and appreciate her different attempts to get out of Murphy's trap.
Red Eye is full of clever instances, from truly hilarious comments made by background extras to the best damn way to hide a giant missile launcher on a yacht I've ever seen. Unfortunately, its tense and witty start brings the movie to an uncharacteristically dull third act.
It's when the characters leave the plane that the movie begins to deteriorate. The plane setting is replaced by Lisa's house, bringing the story into the real world and shedding light on its unlikelihoods. Worse yet, Lisa's intelligence and competence is usurped by standard horror victim tendencies - she very frustratingly doesn't assault Murphy when he's entirely unarmed, for no reason other than to draw out the movie's thin premise.
Red Eye is a sometimes witty thriller that enjoys a very terse first hour. The last act is very disappointingly subpar, losing its self awareness and becoming the very generic movie that it seemed like it would rise above. Still, very strong performances by two attractive leads makes Red Eye a movie that's worth checking out.
Aaron Schneider's Get Low is a pithy little movie partly based on folklore surrounding a hermit who wanted a living funeral. The hermit is Felix Bush, a cantankerous old man who has lived isolated from society for a couple of decades. Feeling that his end is near, he arranges his own funeral and plans to attend it, ostensibly to hear everyone's wild tales that have sprung up about him over the years.
Felix Bush is played by Robert Duvall, an acting veteran at the age of 79. Bush is pretty indistinguishable from Duvall, and whether that's due to brilliant casting or brilliant acting, it makes the movie either way. Full of quiet acerbic wit, Bush is an intriguing character who I was very interested to learn more about.
The supporting cast is just as pleasant. Bill Murray plays the owner of the funeral department that agrees to Bush's bizarre requests. Murray oozes with avarice, always interested in the best way to make a buck, and essentially married to money since he seems to be the town's only divorcee. Lucas Black plays his protege, an ethical foil to his incessant greed. The only time I've seen Black previously was as "Jeep" in the suicide-envokingly bad Legion, and I was grateful to see that, when given real material to work with, he held a strong presence on screen.
Sissy Spacek plays one of Bush's old flames, and I found that it was her scenes with Duvall that were among the movie's best. Both of these actors have decades of experience under their belts, and seeing them gently sweet talk each other will make you really believe that they have a life time of history between them.
Get Low has incredible acting, and it's also a rural feast for the eyes. The 1930s setting provides a lot of natural beauty, taking us back to a time when a town and the nature around it were much more entwined, a much simpler time.
The problem with Get Low is that it really is simple to a fault.
The premise of a living funeral can only take a movie so far, and although a great deal is built up around Bush's past, when the reveal finally comes at the end, it can only be described as underwhelming. We hear a couple of rumor mill reasons why Bush had originally gone into isolation throughout the movie, and I only wish that the true story was half as interesting as any of those.
Of course, that could be the point of the movie. It certainly seems as though it champions the mundane over the exciting, the flat realism over anything fantastical.
Get Low is a brilliantly acted affair set in a time that's beautiful to visit. The characters are interesting to watch and there are plenty of genuinely funny moments. If that sounds like enough for you, then it's probably worth watching. If, on the other hand, you enjoy an engrossing story, then you should probably sit this one out. It never tries to evolve past its original premise, and the mundane plot that follows isn't enough to hold it up.
Final rating: 7/10
--James A. Janisse
Robert Rodriguez's "Predators" is the third movie in a series that began with Arnold Schwarzenegger running around Guatemala in 1987. This latest entry sees a group of the world's most dangerous individuals paradropped onto a foreign planet, where they serve as game for a pack of Predators.
The movie wastes no time exploring the gears behind this situation, and that's definitely a good decision. In a movie like this, I don't care who dropped these characters here or why, I just want to see some bad-ass soldiers forced to work together to survive.
Unfortunately, these bad-asses are so one-dimensional that I couldn't have cared less about who'd survive. Half of the characters don't even mention their names, let alone display any aspects of personality. The screenwriters probably figured that audiences would be able to distinguish the characters by appearance, since there's "the convict", "the Russian", "the Mexican" (frequent Mexican Danny Trejo), etc. Sure, I knew who was who, but I didn't care about them at all.
The de facto leader of the group is played by Adrien Brody. I usually appreciate Brody, and I just had a great time seeing him in Splice, but I don't like him in action-flick mode. He just throws on a gruff Batman-esque voice and growls his lines without any emotion. Alice Braga plays a role that curiously didn't go to Michelle Rodriguez, and Laurence Fishburne is wasted with one of the smallest and insensible roles of his career. Topher Grace was actually all right to watch, but by the end of the movie I wished he had never been there.
The first half of Predators is slow and boring. Some very Lost-like shots begin a goalless trek through the jungle, with occasional obstacles such as CGI dog-boars and weird skinny mantis things that are never fully explained. When Fishburne appears, he lets the remaining survivors know that there are actually TWO type of Predators, "little ones" and "big ones". The big ones are creatively known as "super Predators", and are unfortunately a bit difficult to distinguish from the "class Predators" when they're rolling around on the ground together fighting.
To be entirely honest, I hated this movie. I went in with an open mind, and even when I realized what I was in for, I was ready to accept a good campy action movie. Instead, I got a film that nobody cared about enough to look over before releasing.
There are absurd moments of laziness in this movie. After Brody abandons the last two members of the group, Braga and Grace, he goes and frees the "classic Predator" that was chained up by the "super Predators" for whatever reason. Classic Predator activates his ship from his wrist, including having it eventually take off without him. Super Predator then kills Classic Predator before also pressing buttons on his OWN wrist and having the Classic Predator's ship blow up. Because that makes sense.
By far the lowest valley of the film is when Topher Grace turns on Alice Braga and poisons her. His motivation is non-existent; in fact, they're currently captured by the Super Predator and his leg is broken, so the decision seems pretty self-destructive. The reason he gives, barely audible through Braga's hardcore drug tripping, is that he feels like he belongs on the planet with the Predators, because even though he had to be saved multiple times earlier that day, he's actually a totally bad-ass dude for real.
***SPOILERS BE GONE***
Predators is a stupid movie that only cares about decapitations and explosions. I expected Rodriguez to rejuvenate this series with an exciting but well-made action sci-fi. Instead, he gave us a bunch of characters who were only thought up as cool death scenes were imagined.
The movie's ending is more open than a bar in Vegas, and I wouldn't be surprised if these extraterrestrial hunters wind up with another movie. Hopefully, someone will just remember to edit that script.
Final rating: 2/10
--James A. Janisse
Amidst the present-day cinemascape of mega-budget comic book movies comes Kick-Ass, ready to satire the genre by asking the question "What would happen if an average guy took it upon himself to be a superhero?"
It's an enticing premise, to be sure, something I myself have wondered many times before. Kick-Ass, directed by Matthew Vaughn (who also directed one of my all-time favorites, Layer Cake), is a hip and violent movie that almost seems like a comic book lovechild of Tarantino and Kevin Smith (There are even a few Pulp Fiction references to boot).
Kick-Ass follows Aaron Johnson as a high school loser who begins to pursue the life of a superhero. During his first outing, he is severely beaten, earning him some damaged nerves and metal plates. With these newfound "powers", he ventures out again, this time successfully fending off three attackers while simultaneously getting recorded and uploaded to YouTube.
Kick-Ass is born, and soon attracts the attention of a seriously ass kicking superhero duo of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his 11 year old daughter Hit Girl
(Chloe Moretz). They're doing their own (very, very violent) crimefighting, trying to get to the big baddy, played by Mark Strong. Christopher Mintz-Plasse plays Strong's son who seeks both paternal pride and a bitchin' superhero identity.
The cast is well-suited for their roles. Johnson seems like he could slide in next to Jesse Eisenberg on the "awkward young guy" continuum (with Michael Cera of course on Eisenberg's other side). He's naively sweet but also tough enough to stand and fight. Nic Cage gives an inspired performance as Big Daddy, occasionally channeling an Adam West accent and bursting at the seams with pride over his daughter. Hit Girl, played by Chloe Moretz, will of course be the most talked about, and with good cause. She embraces the violence and obscenities with confidence, famously dropping the c-bomb at one point. While Moretz annoyed me in her little sister role in 500 Days of Summer, she's easily the best part of Kick-Ass.
Kick-Ass is cutesy, snarky, and sticks to the source material through inventively portrayed backstories. The problem with the movie is that it seems to be well aware of its strengths, so for everything else, it decides to coast. It coasts past any truly creative humor, past any overall moral message, and past coming up with original solutions to its fight scenes. Kick-Ass is like the cool guy at school who knows he's cool, so he acts like he's cool, and it makes him less cool.
The premise of Kick-Ass requires that the story stay grounded in reality - after all, we're supposed to identity with Johnson as one of us in the real world; he's seen all the movies and comic books that we have. Kick-Ass does stay grounded, but this is a problem when so much killing goes on. Big Daddy and Hit Girl are intelligent and efficient, no doubt, but they're hard to root for when they kill so casually in a world that's supposed to be our own. I don't really have a problem with violence in my movies, but Kick-Ass just seems so mean-spirited that it's hard to ignore.
That being said, the fight sequences were still my favorite parts of the film. Big Daddy and Hit Girl are truly amazing in action. In fact, in retrospect, I would rather the film had embraced its strong action sequences and taken a more serious approach. This is because the humor seemed like it was just recycled generic "cool loser" dialogue. A subplot involves the girl Johnson likes and the rest of his school thinking he's gay because he was ostensibly brought into the emergency room naked (he had the paramedics dispose of his costume). Not only does this result in a lot of obvious gay jokes, but I can't really see how the student body came to the "gay" conclusion when it seemed like their fellow peer was raped. It seems either not entirely thought-through or just plain cynical, and with the rest of the film being so amoral, I suspect the latter.
Finally, although the fight scenes were true delights, many of them ended the same way - one person getting pinned down, another showing up to save them at the last minute. This happens at least three times, two of them within fifteen minutes of each other. There's also a "secret weapon" that they hold out on showing for way too long. I guessed it when it was first brought up, and I don't even do that in movies.
Overall, Kick-Ass is a movie that is great in some areas and regretable in others. It's clear that it's found a huge fanbase, which isn't surprising given its slick, action-packed, self-aware take on the comic book genre. I really did enjoy the movie, but I thought that it could have been much better if the ideas had been more fleshed out. Still, Kick-Ass manages to be entertaining and pretty clever, so in the end it lives up to its name.
Final rating: 7/10
--James A. Janisse
Fatal Attraction was a huge deal when it was released in 1987. Not only was it the highest grossing film of the year, it also gained 6 Oscar nods, including Best Picture. Somehow I managed to remain relatively unaware of the film until recently, when I was able to experience it in all of its infamy.
Fatal Attraction looks at the repercussions of extramarital affairs, especially when said affairs are with a psychotic woman. This particular psychotic woman is Alex Forrest, played by Glenn Close. Alex appears to suffer from a violent form of borderline personality disorder, prone to emotional reversals and manipulative behavior. Alex becomes obsessed with the man she knows is married. Michael Douglass plays the cheating husband, Anne Archer the hapless wife.
Close is clearly the highlight of the film. Sometimes she is frighteningly manic, and other times overbearingly sweet - both modes equally disturbing. One of the more terrifying things about Alex Forrest is her intelligence compared to her emotional maturity. She is clever in all the ways she gets around Douglass's avoidance, but also cries and cuts herself when she doesn't get her way. She's like an intelligent, violent toddler that Douglass can't get rid of. Glen Close gives a performance that may very well end up in your nightmares.
The film excels in thrills and suspense, and even dips into the horror genre for its memorable finale. Director Adrian Lyne spins the story out with a very effective touch. There are a number of scenes with great intercutting, including Close catatonicaly turning a light on and off, and the infamous boiling bunny sequence. Other scenes are brilliant in tone, like the clausterphobic library where Douglass confides in a colleague amidst heavy breathing and tall book cases.
The suspense builds steadily as Close goes further and further with her infatuation, and the movie keeps up pace. I'm pretty sure the sound of the phone ringing gets increasingly louder. By the last act, the phone's ring sounded more terrifying than any big budget sound effect - all it took was simple conditioning. Well played, Mr. Lyne.
My only issue with the film is that it seems somewhat unlikely for Douglass and Close to end up having an affair in the first place. Douglass slips into bed with her very casually, making it seem like he's done this frequently before. If that's the case, then I don't feel as much pity for him, even if he is get stalked. As for Close's character, it seems dubious that she should have so steady a job with an affliction so serious, but maybe she was fine before old cheatin' Douglass came around and messed up her world.
Fatal Attraction may have been made in the 80s, but the only thing that seems dated is the attire. It's still an effective thriller that maintains constant suspense, and Glen Close delivers one of the best female antagonist performances I've ever seen. This is easily one of the greatest thrillers ever made. It should not be missed.
Final rating: 9/10
--James A. Janisse