THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS OR MAYBE STUCK IN AN ELEVATOR IN PHILLY...
2010 cannot be described as a good year for M. Night Shyamalan. The negative reaction to "The Last Airbender" was immediate and scathing. It went so far as to become an act of revisionist history with some critics dissecting his entire career and declaring it retroactively over after the phenomenal success of "The Sixth Sense". So, I just had to check out "Devil", released a mere three months after "The Last Airbender", and thanks to some ITunes gift cards from Christmas, I could do so without risking my own money.
"Devil" opens with a suicide and details the story of five people trapped in a high rise elevator in downtown Philadelphia, who experience events that can only be explained by the supernatural. The "devil" aspect comes into play through a guard in the building whose mother puts Brothers Grim to shame. She told him bedtime stories as a child about the devil taking human form to trap, torture and kill those who will eventually end up in his(or her?) domain anyway. It's a bit of a locked room mystery with a police detective working the suicide who tries to decipher what is happening in the elevator via security cameras.
I'll start with my likes which are mostly about mood. The camera work, including opening credits over the upside down city, is excellent with sweeps and mirror perspective shots that keep the viewer constantly askew. The music, also key to the mood, is heavy handed enough to cue an edge or your seat tension throughout. I didn't have any problem with the acting but the characters are all like those found in a hour long Twilight Zone type show. You know, played by vaguely familiar actors and fleshed out just enough to make us pay attention for an hour minus commercials.
My dislikes? The ending does have a few "twists" people expect from Shyamalan's work but they are fairly tepid. The narrator is a mildly annoying piece of work also. His "my mama told me" declarations about the devil are at best awkward exposition and at worst silly. Why insert an otherwise rational character who earnestly expects everyone to shake their heads and say "yep it's the Devil, that's for sure"?
Verdict? The reports of M. Knight Shyamalan's career suicide are premature and he will make more movies to love or hate I'm sure. "Devil" probably would have been viewed as C grade work but a minor hiccup if it had not come out after "The Last Airbender".
I've always been an easy fan of movies involving characters going about their normal lives who begin to notice that the extraordinary or possibly the horrific is sneaking in around the edges. This can take the form of natural disasters, biological threats or the quiet ( or not so quiet) arrival of hostile visitors from beyond. The recent release, "Skyline", takes on the alien invasion plot with the opening scene being luminous and ethereal blue lights dropping from the sky onto a sleeping Los Angeles. We flashback to the day before and meet our main characters of Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and Elaine (Scottie Thompson) who are traveling to L.A. to visit an old friend of Jarrod's who has made a successful go at fame and fortune in the movie industry. Very quickly we get the necessary but shallow set up for our characters. Jarrod is a knight in shining armor who helps strangers with their luggage on the airplane and Elaine is appropriately uncomfortable with the L.A. lifestyle they stumble into. Jarrod's friend, Terry (Donald Faison) has become a bit of a sleaze and has a girlfriend (Brittany Daniel) so instantly unlikable that you know attempts to humanize her later will fail. Terry throws a blow out party in his penthouse and we're ready for the invasion scene this hungover group will awake to early the next morning.
I'll render my final judgment early and say that if the goal here was to create a group of vaguely unlikable characters and kill them off over 92 minutes, then they succeeded. There are obvious similarities between "Skyline" and 2008's "Cloverfield". I was a fan of the latter and despite any gimmicks used like the hand held camera work, I related to the characters and cared about them in the way an audience should. That just did not happen during "Skyline". The first obvious issue I had was with the two leads. Jarron and Elaine have very little chemistry as an on screen couple and the casting choice was odd. The actors have such similar and distinct faces that they look like siblings. It was as if they came from the same very pretty Eastern European, Calvin Klein "esque" family of models.
"Skyline" also lacks creativity and suspense. The aliens must be keeping up with Earth pop culture because they are a mish mash of creatures from "The Matrix", "War of the Worlds" and the recent Terminator movie. Out of the 92 minute run time there were only a couple moments that reached edge of your seat anticipation and those involved the decent special effects and an air battle that conjured a feeling of "hooray for U.S. military might"
"Skyline" should have ended with the forlorn scenes of the world's capitals in ruins and under the same type of attack as L.A. but instead we get an overly long ending that screams "SEQUEL". In fact it is so long it continues in snapshot scenes during the credits. I'll spare you. You can exit the theater as soon as possible because there is nothing left worth seeing.
How not to make a "I see dead people", drama, teen romance, semi-comedy movie.
"Charlie St. Cloud" starring Zac Efron is the story of the title character and how he deals with the loss of his younger brother, Sam, (Charlie Tahan) in a car accident made even worse by the fact that Charlie is driving. Seemingly from beyond the grave or only in Charlie's mind, Sam shows up every day for a promised baseball lesson. We flash forward five years and Charlie has given up on college, his love of sailing and become the town recluse all to make his daily appointment with Sam.
From my title of my post you may have picked up on the fact that I think "Charlie St. Cloud" is a awkward mismatch of ideas that don't necessarily fare well in the same movie. Self-editing is a valuable skill that would serve the creative forces behind this movie very well. There are three, possibly four distinct story lines going here including a missed opportunity at a supernatural drama. I don't think any of them succeed because it doesn't appear this movie knows what it wants to be.
As far as acting, Efron has a charming face and disposition that lends well to the humor but not so much the drama. You can practically see him straining in the first part of the movie to keep up with the movie's over the top dramatics. It's further proof to me that Hollywood finds us a bit dense and believes we need a trail of bread crumbs leading to the obvious. In this case the obvious is that the sudden loss of a young family member is tragic.
Of course you cannot have Zac Efron as your lead without some romance. Charlie attracts the interest of Tess (Amanda Crew), a young woman training for a round the globe sailing trip. I hate to be harsh but my biggest criticism is for Amanda Crew. She has a delivery so flat as to suck any spark or chemistry out of the scenes between Charlie and Tess. Since I'm really trashing this movie, I will give some props to Charlie Tahan who plays Sam. He is genuinely funny and at times conveys the sadness embodied by his character.
Have I made this sound so terrible? There is an audience for this movie but I don't think that includes people like me who take a cynical view about the state of creativity in film.
Finally, the real awkward teen fall for vampire story!
Let Me In", set in 1983, tells the woeful story of Owen (Kodi Smith-Mcphee) who is not exactly living the dream of adolescence. In addition to being thin, awkward and bullied, his fractured home life is anything but a refuge. Into his life comes new neighbors who will change everything. An older man and young girl move next door to Owen and he can easily eavesdrop on them from his bedroom. Owen soon makes friends with the young girl, Abby (Chloe Moretz) and almost instantly senses a soul mate. At first she is presented as timid, insecure and possibly neglected. The story moves pretty quickly and doesn't really try to hide that Chloe is actually a vampire, older than she appears and as much vicious killer as timid perpetual adolescent.
There, now we've done the set up; so let's dissect this movie. The atmosphere in "Let Me In" is stark and never lets you rest from the sense of foreboding and that is exactly as it should be in this type of movie. I commend the director for keeping the gore and blood at a level that satisfies without turning off the viewer. He replaces some of the visuals for sound. Just know, when Abby feeds her need, you will have no doubt what is happening even though it may be shot in the shadows or off camera.
The acting is good all around but success rests on the four characters who take up a majority of the screen time. I am in awe of Kodi Smith-Mcphee's portrayal of Owen. I instantly connected with the character and Mcphee's ability to play both the hopelessness and rage of a victim. His bullying at school is the most humiliating sort and is lead by a student who I will describe as a sadistic, future closet-case who is pretty scary despite having Justin Bieber hair. Chloe Moretz would really surprise at this point if she failed to deliver an excellent performance. You will, I think, also be blown away by how she conveys tenderness toward Owen at one moment and animalistic need for blood the next. Richard Jenkins, a chameleon like actor who can play both the silliest of comedy and the tautest of drama, plays Abby's shadowy protector who has obviously sacrificed his life to feed her endless appetite and protect her from the consequences. Owen's mother is played by Cara Bouno and don't worry if you don't recognize her. She is excellently shot the entire movie out of focus with a glass of wine in hand or nearby in a way that clearly says the parents are unimportant in this story.
I'll close by saying that "Let Me In" is a dark, delicious Halloween treat that I highly recommend.
I am a fan of simple and streamlined story telling; so I enjoyed the first movie in the Resident Evil franchise which came out in 2002. The story was easy to follow and enjoy - killer day at the office when all of the employees of the evil multi-national Umbrella Corporation are killed and turned into zombies by a super virus. Survivors and rescuers must fight their way out. I was totally there. I was not such a fan of the second movie and pretty much ignored the third except for a glimpse here and there on cable.
My desire to check out "Resident Evil: Afterlife" was driven by being a sometimes but enthusiastic Milla Jovovich fan ever since first seeing her in the dazzling, hyper-kinetic, Jean-Paul Gautier drenched movie "The Fifth Element". For her fans I have some good news and bad news. You will see a lot of her in "Resident Evil: Afterlife", including, I counted, 11 clones in the opening scenes, but not much of her acting skill. My first big complaint is that she is nothing more than post-apocalyptic eye candy to fill the space between supposedly impressive 3D effects.
I was hoping this movie would have the pre-requisite amount of zombie action sprinkled with dark humor and basically repeat the first movie because repetition is not always a bad thing. Nope. Instead there are 97 minutes of what feels like nothing except set up for a fifth movie. Sure there is a story (loosely) where Alice encounters a group of survivors but some of them are so expendable and cliched they are a waste of time. It all moves too fast and there is never a connection.
I don't know what to say about the 3D, really. There was some stop action moments which if you took the time examine them were visually trippy and interesting but they were overshadowed by the multitude of slow motion fight sequences which were over wrought and boring. So much slow motion in fact that I began to wonder if someone had slipped a valium into my blueberry slushy(?). Not to mention that this over used effect turned the big bad villain into a tired Agent Smith impersonation.
In the end Alice and her cohorts are on a giant ship full of survivors who look like they work for an Apple store in 2020. An army of black clad Umbrella agents are on the way promising an overblown and empty showdown for the next movie. A funny note. Even though I am sure most of the audience, like myself, were heading to the restrooms, we all turned back to the screen like cattle for a super special bonus scene at the end. That's the last slight of the movie because I did not even know who the female villain reveal was until I got home and Googled it. Shame on them. Don't do that people who have to pee.