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Rating History

The Call
The Call (2013)
3 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

So there are probably going to be some spoilers in this review. Not specific ones, of course, but if you just want a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down on The Call, picture me like I'm trying to enjoy eating a really old apple, but I'm also hungry, and I have to go to the bathroom, and I'm giving a thumbs-kind-of-down. If you want to know specifically what's wrong with The Call, why it manages to fail despite some really solid direction from vet Brad Anderson and a great performance from Halle Berry, read, well, on.

The Call is full of suspense, pretty much from the get-go. Anderson (The Machinist, Session 9) and Berry are too good for there not to be, and the story, which sees her playing a 911 operator on a real-time call from a kidnapped teen (Abigail Breslin) in the trunk of a serial killer's car, is a pretty automatic set-up, anxiety-generation-wise.

The whole thing's acted and shot well enough, in fact, that it manages to do that magic thriller thing, where you're able, because the thing moves well enough and is performed well enough and scored well enough, that you kind of simultaneously note and then happily ignore the series of coincidences and implausibilities that fuel the action.

There's a lot of cell-phone hiding, a lot of just-miss timing, a lot of "why is he smart enough to do this but not that" kind of plot... thin spots, if not holes. But it's fine. The Call is tense and suspenseful, and surprisingly good. But. But. While thrillers of even the disposable, enjoyable type are allowed to contain implausibilities of the plot type (and often, frankly, rely on them), character implausibilities are still huge-time verboten. When characters stop behaving the way they have all film and do something that may seem cool, or wicked, or totally awesome (but is clearly not what, say, a 911 operator having tracked down a villain would do), the movie stops like a shot clock. The gears fall out.

That's what happens to The Call. Anderson, Berry and Breslin manage to put together a thoroughly competent, mildly enjoyable thriller that becomes hilariously, pointlessly stupid in its last moments. This is a trend, now, as last month's Safe Haven did almost the exact same thing. It's pointless, depressing. It's like building a perfectly functional house for your family and then taking a huge shit in it. No good can come from it. The ending of The Call isn't even a failed attempt at something interesting, as it's not even discernable what they were even trying to do.

It's bad.

No one that sees this film is going to like the ending. No one that likes thrillers is going to like the ending. Because it's not an ending, it's a character implausibility so massive and sudden that it's basically a room full of screenwriters and producers screaming "surprise! this isn't a story, it's all fake". Which is a shame, because they managed to convince me otherwise for the first two and a half acts.

Dead Man Down
Dead Man Down (2013)
3 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

Terrible title? Check. Overrated lead actor? Check. Displaced Euro director? Check. Yup, all the ingredients of a straight to video bleah are present in Dead Man Down. Except, except...look a little closer, because the closer you look the better this gets.

Based on the main ingredients I think it's fair to say that I had no expectations for this NYC crime thriller. Add in the opening credits and the WWE productions title card and we were well on our way to a lousy time at the movies. 2013 hasn't been much of a year so far. The best we've done is the satisfyingly twisted Side Effects from Stephen Soderbergh (full disclosure, I haven't caught up with Stoker yet) but other than that it has been grim out there. And no, that was not a subtle jab at Hansel and Gretel.

So that makes what happened next all the more impressive. Dead Man Down is an inventively structured mood piece. It hooks you. It does not lay its cards on the table. Scene after scene contained rewarding payoffs. Plot developments are organic and still totally unexpected. The direction is impeccable. There is a near seamless transition style in this between the dramatic and the action driven segments. Things just keep happening and before you are aware of it a harmless date scene has become screaming highway mayhem and then gone quiet again.

It helps that the cast is all pros, headed up by Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace. Terence Howard, Dominic Cooper and a surprisingly amazing Armand Assante (who appears to be channeling Fenster from the Usual Suspects) also impress. Every single one of them knows exactly what kind of lowball genre exercise they find themselves in, and everyone is note perfect throughout.

The script, as most moviegoers (and dismayingly some of my critical colleagues) understand it, is not great. By which I mean there is some overfamiliar dialogue that requires cast and director to do some heavy lifting to get around. But the structure is marvelous, a terrific mash of Rear Window and Little Odessa, and for that I am happy to overlook the occasional lead balloon. There is also a refreshing lack of overt exposition, and relationships are explained in subtle and natural ways throughout. For this, and in deference to a very anemic year so far, Dead Man Down has skyrocketed to the top of my very short list for 2013.

So what to do instead? Watch Irreversible, if only to see what happens when everything I liked about Dead Man Down is taken to even greater heights. Irreversible is also a formalist's wet dream (rape scene or no) that plays with its audience the way that a cat toys with a cockroach. Plus, it has a most satisfying of conclusions, a truly ironic and disturbing "happy ending". The subtle frisson of knowing that the lead actors are involved offscreen gives this a similar sway to Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
3 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

Loading up your supporting cast, as the folks behind The Incredible Burt Wonderstone have done with Alan Arkin and Jim Carrey, presents a pleasantly difficult challenge for a film.

When the bit players-Arkin and Carrey play magicians of the venerated old an despised new schools, respectively-are so, so good, it's an enormous ante-upper. The rest of the film, the bulk of it, had better be pretty damn good, or else the middle of the movie is going to be outshone by its own margins.

Which, sadly, is the case with The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Steve Carrell stars as the impossibly vain, impossibly self-involved titular comedian, whose throne as reigning comedy champ (with his "homely" partner Anton Marvelton, played by Steve Buscemi) is threatened by the arrival on the scene of the Criss-Angel-meets-David-Blaine "Mind Rapist" (Jim Carrey's legitimately disturbing street magician). Penniless and destitute, Wonderstone is forced to rediscover the spirit of magic, with the help of a game assistant played by Olivia Wilde and a crotchety old reclusive genius (Arkin).

There's very little wrong with The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, and most of it is pretty pleasant to sit through, even Carrell's more wildly cruel moments. Don Scardino, who directed a bunch of 30 Rock previously, lets scenes go on quite a bit longer than is the current frenetic fashion, and if there's a problem with the comedy in Wonderstone, it's one of joke density, rather than tone or delivery. It's pretty funny within its plainly formulaic structure, but it's not quite, well, funny enough to be really funny.

That's the crux of the Carrey/Arkin formula. They're both so damn good that when they're not on screen-when we actually have to watch the Wonderstone character arc-we're kind of wondering where they are and what they're doing. It's a drag.

So what should you watch instead? Let's all rediscover Arkin, who weirdly feels like an actor who went from good to great late in his career. Except he was pretty goddamn good, might from the start. He managed to snag a couple of Oscar nominations, in fact, within a couple years of starting out, including one for The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. That movie isn't going to scratch any Wonderstone comedy itch, though, so track down Norman Jewison's very funny, very smart The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming! and watch that instead. Arkin's the best thing in it, but the rest of the film is closer to his quality than Wonderstone gets.

The Last Exorcism Part II
3 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

The Last Exorcism... Part II. Somehow after the last The Last Exorcism, they still managed a follow-up. It's one of the more ridiculous sequel ideas Hollywood has come up with just to milk what they can out of horror fans like myself and unsurprisingly, the film is no good.

The story continues right where the last film ended but this time, they ditched the fake documentary style and made the sequel a regular, old-fashioned narrative film. Ashley Bell, who made her acting debut in part one as a girl possessed (and is known, I guess, for her incredible contorting skills) again plays Nell, who manages to escape the evil cult that held her captive and somehow ends up in a group home in New Orleans where she tries to rebuild her life. But the demon that had possessed her returns with an even more horrific plan which ends up not being very horrific at all.

As a whole the film is rather dull and the scares are of the "shadows walking by the camera and standing in the background" variety. And that's pretty much it. You never get to see any of the actual good gore on screen - it's just implied. Just like the first film, the filmmakers lead the viewer on with teases that don't really pay off and all of the actual "horror" happens at the very end but that itself wasn't very good either.

The only thing that made this film entertaining was Ashley Bell's incredible, intentionally awkward and believable performance. If the film didn't have her in it, there wouldn't be much there at all. I was rather disappointed that they hardly took advantage of Bell's contorting as well. All of the other characters were incredibly bland and the acting was flat at best, which, coupled with my previous complaints doesn't make for much of a film. As I left the theatre all I kept wondering was "What the hell was Eli Roth thinking?" Don't waste your time or money.

Jack the Giant Slayer
3 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Jack the Giant Slayer is director Bryan Singer's first film since 2008's pretty good Valkyrie and what's most disappointing is that it's not the triumphant return to greatness it could have been - the dude has unfortunately been unable to shake the colossal misstep of 2006's Superman Returns and the release of this summer's Superman reboot can only throw even more salt into that 7 year wound. Still, the guy who made The Usual Suspects and the first two X-Men films must still have it in him to make a decent flick, Right? Well, we might have to wait for his next X-men film to find out because Jack the Giant Slayer ain't it.

That's not to say that Jack the Giant Slayer is a bad movie - in fact it's kinda fun at times and who wouldn't be excited about the prospect of seeing Ewan McGregor essentially reprise his role as Obi Wan Kenobi? The problem is that the film (which, as you might have guessed is an expanded, re-imagined and more detailed adaptation of the centuries-old Jack & the Beanstalk story) is not nearly imaginative and creative envelope-pushing enough. They played it a little too safe and as a result it's, well, I wouldn't say dull, but instead forgettable and unnecessary.

The script shows promise when it introduces an ancient mythology that includes a secret magic crown which allows its wearer to control the race of giants that live in the sky, but falters in its 2-dimensional characterization of Jack himself (Nicholas Hoult), who ends up being a cookie-cutter hero with no real redeeming qualities yet somehow still manages to save the princess (Eleanor Tomlinson). She's an even more 2-dimensional archetype who, despite being described as a plucky young woman who thirsts for adventure and independence, only ever manages to get herself captured (and when rescued, she reverts back to sheltered princess mode, seemingly having learned nothing).

Overall, the film is definitely something you could take your kids to and chances are they'd enjoy it (the giants themselves are pretty great, as is Stanley Tucci's baddie), but you could just as easily wait for it to come to home video. Instead, why not stay in this weekend and watch another re-imagined legend of olde directed by yet another great filmmaker who has also had his share of perceived misses - including the very film I'm about to name?

Why not give Sir Ridley Scott's Robin Hood another try? Trust us, it's way better than you remember. It takes a well-known centuries-old story and tweaks some of the details to create something new. Tonally it's a far more sombre take on the (usually) cheery source material. Not to mention the fact that in 21st century Hollywood Scott did the unthinkable and cast older actors in the main roles. Compare this strategy to the questionable casting of Kate Bosworth as a Pulitzer-winning Lois Lane in her early 20s from Superman Returns and you'll see that Robin Hood is far from a cookie cutter adaptation of familiar material and is instead, a pretty good (if not great) film. Watch that instead!