Archive | November, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene

27 Nov

Title: Martha Marcy May Marlene
Year: 2011
Director: Sean Durkin
Writer: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy
MPAA Rating: R, disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language
Runtime: 102 min
Major Awards: –
IMDb Rating: 7.8
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%

 

Expectations were running incredibly high for me going into Martha Marcy May Marlene, the buzz surrounding it, and especially the lead debut performance by Elizabeth Olsen (Mary-Kate and Ashley’s younger sister) were seriously superb, and the supporting cast included actors I really love like Sarah Paulson and John Hawkes, the latter of which seems to be really hitting a stride after his impeccable performance in last year’s masterful Winter’s Bone (which I gave an A+ to). So I went into it really expecting to be impressed by this film by first time feature writer-director Sean Durkin, and I left it feeling thoroughly satisfied with what I had just seen, this is a tremendous film, a really gripping psychological drama that creates this terrifically haunting atmosphere and is grounded by a pitch-perfect performance by the young Ms. Olsen, who should seriously be in contention for an Oscar nomination.

If you don’t know a thing about this movie you may be wondering about the riddle-like title of it, and what exactly does it mean. Let me explain it to you, Martha is Ms. Olsen’s character real name, Marcy May is the name given to her be the leader of the cult she’s in, and Marlene is the name the women in this cult use to answer the phone. Yes, this is a movie about a cult, one that’s located in a white farmhouse in upstate New York and, in case you were wondering, Mr. Hawkes is the one in charge of playing Patrick, the leader of the cult who gives Martha her new name and who controls the group of people living under him, most of whom are obviously women.

There’s something about Mr. Hawkes’ perfomance as Patrick that’s just incredible to watch. This guy is an actor I really like, and the stuff he brings to this role is just so exquisite to watch come to life, he plays Patrick perfectly, creating a man that you can very possibly see how he could get you to trust in him, to love him and then, finally, to subconsciously relent all your decisions to his will the way all cult leaders do. It’s a chilling performance that only an actor as great as Mr. Hawkes could have pulled off, those early scenes in which he gets acquainted with Martha are tremendous, he’s seductive almost, making himself and his community incredibly appealing to a girl in need of a father figure and a place to call home, he’s an incredibly magnetic actor, and he totally sells you on Patrick, making you believe that he’s a man both intellectually and emotionally capable of such extreme psychological manipulation. The scene in which he sings “Marcy’s Song”, a folk tune by Jackson Frank, will send chills down your spine, because under all the sweetness that’s apparently in the song you will see the glimmer of a quietly confident man in full brainwashing mode, and if you’ve seen Winter’s Bone then you know the effect Mr. Hawkes’ eyes can have.

That scene though early in Martha’s story is one we get some time into the film, in one of the many flashbacks used by Mr. Durkin to little by little shine a light on why Martha is such a damaged girl. Instead, when the film opens we see her running away from the cult and calling her married older sister, Lucy, the character played by Ms. Paulson, who comes to pick her up and take her to the lake house she shares with her husband, a British architect named Ted who’s played by Hugh Dancy.

Their relationship is clearly strained, when Martha calls Lucy you see in her eyes and voice that she wasn’t necessarily happy to be calling her sister after living in a cult, but instead it was a call made out of necessity, because family is kind of obliged to take you in. And while Lucy certainly seems to care for her sister, you do get to see a distance between the two, and she clearly can’t really see how damaged her younger sister appears to be. Because damaged is a good word to describe Martha’s state of mind, one that’s not only having a hard time restarting a normal life that isn’t dictated by Patrick’s rules but that’s also flooded by a paranoia that they’ll find her and take her back. She’s struggling to shed away the imposed personality of Marcy May and find Martha again.

I thought it was a very smart move by Mr. Durkin to present us with this time-shifting narrative, moving along at a free pace between the two years Martha spent in the cult and the present as she’s trying to get back her life with Lucy and Ted. It was a smart move because it creates a sense of confusion in our minds as viewers, and the structure of how the story evolves gradually makes us join in Martha’s paranoia that the cult might resurface to take her back. And to see the two timelines at the same time also enables us to feel how the two are probably mixed up in Martha’s own mind, she knows that she’s out of the cult but the teachings of Patrick and the cult will stay with her for quite some time, he made sure of that by ripping her of her identity from the moment she set foot on his compound, by establishing himself as a ruler in her mind.

It’s truly commendable how Mr. Durkin shows us the world of the cult, he basically acts as Patrick in a way, easing us into that new reality little by little. First he shows us the good things, working on the farm and caring for the community’s infants, and once we’re engaged with the story he shows us the more shocking aspects of the world ran by Patrick, one in which all women have to sleep with him and, perhaps most frighteningly, are under the impression that it’s their desire to do so, when we knows its clear that Patrick has already robbed them of their own free will without them even knowing so. All of this is shown with such masterful pacing that we don’t really feel the grip of the movie tightening until we start sharing Martha’s paranoia and fears and sympathize with her case, knowing both how hard it must be to leave the cult once that she’s so deep in it, and how hard it must be readjusting to normal life, especially considering Ted and Lucy aren’t really the most helpful when it comes to realizing how deeply disturbed she is psychologically.

A lot of the credit for this working as outstandingly as it did has to go to Ms. Olsen. This is probably one of my favorite female lead performances of the year so far, if not my absolute favorite, she’s just so, so good here. She’s pretty much playing three roles, after all, because the three names represent three women who all behave in different ways, and she’s impeccable as each one of them, making you believe all three personalities. The fact that such a young actress was given such a wide range of emotions to play in her first leading performance and that she nailed them like she did speaks volumes about her power as an actress, about her presence, there’s just something so deep and vulnerable about her, not to mention she’s breathtakingly beautiful, that I think it’s imminent that she becomes one of the very best actresses around. This is a remarkable film, one of the year’s best and that’s certainly introduced us to one of the brightest young stars we have today.

Grade: A+

Johnny English Reborn

26 Nov

Title: Johnny English Reborn
Year: 2011
Director: Oliver Parker
Writers: William Davies and Hamish McColl, based on the characters by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade
Starring: Rowan Atkinson, Gillian Anderson, Rosamund Pike, Dominic West, Daniel Kaluuya, Richard Schiff
MPAA Rating: PG, mild action violence, rude humor, some language and brief sensuality
Runtime: 101 min
Major Awards: –
IMDb Rating: 6.7
Rotten Tomatoes: 38%

 

If you count yourself amongst the fans of 2003’s Johnny English, the first time we saw Rowan Atkinson spoof the spy genre, mainly the James Bond movies, then you will most likely find yourself liking this sequel to it, Johnny English Reborn. I personally didn’t particularly care for the original, it was a fun time at the movies but the spoofs weren’t particularly clever or original, and so I thought pretty much the same thing about this one, in which Rowan Atkinson’s comedic genius is wasted on gags that, mostly, are pretty uninspired. But, that being said, this is still Rowan Atkinson we’re talking about, the guy that made Blackadder and Mr. Bean and who created a very distinctive and effective style of comedy, so this movie does have some good moments just on the talents and charm of its star alone.

The thing with pretty much all movies that act as James Bond spoofs, and certainly this one, is that, quality of their jokes aside, they never really spoof today’s gritty Daniel Craig Bond films, nor do they make fun of the lighter fare of the Pierce Brosnan era but instead seem to target exclusively the Bond films of three decades ago or so in which it was all about the martinis and the gadgets. So it’s not as though young moviegoers who’s Bond experience may be limited to The World is Not Enough, Die Another Day, Casino Royale and/or Quantum of Solace will get how Mr. Atkinson is making fun of Roger Moore. But still, this one will still make money because even if Mr. Atkinson isn’t as well known Stateside he’s a huge global star, and this one’s already made nearly $160 million against a $45 million budget.

As for how this one compares to its predecessor, I think they’re just about the same quality-wise or, if anything, this one may actually be a tad better. It’s actually a bit more dark than the first one was, though of course it’s still rated PG, but in the eight years that have passed between films its as though this film series has established a very definite personality, which makes the jokes funnier and knows how to exploit Mr. Atkinson’s incredibly hilarious facial expressions, which is where his best comedy usually comes from. He’s back as the titular character, obviously, who’s had to go into seclusion someplace in the Far East after a mission goes wrong. But, as it usually happens in films that use that, he’s pulled back from that exile to help with one big job, this time that job is taking down an evil organization that’s been implanting moles into the world’s top spy agencies. As I write this right now I actually don’t know if I’ll give this one a B-, which would mean I barely recommend it, or a C+, which means I barely don’t. The thing is that while there’s stuff in this that’s actually sharp and I like the tongue-in-cheek vibe the whole film has, I just didn’t think it was that great, and I could’ve skipped the film and I would be more than fine with it.

But anyways, back to the plot, you have the always-awesome Gillian Anderson, rocking a British accent, in full deadpan mode as the agency’s new boss who sends Johnny to Hong Kong where he’s to prevent the assassination of the Chinese premier the new rival organization has plotted out. This new introduction of Johnny into the spy world provides one of the better moments in the film as he has to take this facial scan test from the agency’s psychologist. Not just because that means close-up time with the aforementioned hilarity that always ensues from watching Mr. Atkinson’s elastic face do its magic, but because that psychologist is played by the lovely Rosamund Pike (who was indeed a Bond girl in Die Another Day), and I think she’s brilliant. Another new character we’re introduced to here is Tucker, a guy who’s quite intelligent and who happens to be black, so you can imagine how pairing him with Johnny goes, considering he’s pretty racist and thinks he always has the right answer. Oh, and The Wire‘s Dominic West is also here, as Ambrose, the smoothest spy you’ll see in the whole movie.

Mr. Atkinson is indeed quite good at his particular brand of comedy, and the set-pieces Johnny English Reborn constructs in order for him to excel at that are sometimes really witty and well-done, but there’s no real laugh-out-loud moment, no hilarious climax that will leave you wiping tears away from your eyes. That’s not to say the film is not funny, but it’s the sort of funny that’s consistently funny and will get a smile on your face throughout, but not the sort of fine that will buildup to big laughs and then start back up again. I’m not favoring one over the other, but I’m just used to laughing like crazy with Rowan Atkinson films, and the fact that this one didn’t achieve that for me I guess means it’s just not good, not even if he’s trying his best to make it so.

Grade: C+

The Three Musketeers

26 Nov

Title: The Three Musketeers
Year: 2011
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Writers: Andrew Davies and Alex Litvak, based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas
Starring: Logan Lerman, Milla Jovovich, Matthew Macfadyen, Ray Stevenson, Luke Evans, Mads Mikkelsen, James Corden, Juno Temple, Orlando Bloom, Christoph Waltz
MPAA Rating: PG-13, sequences of adventure action violence
Runtime: 110 min
Major Awards: –
IMDb Rating: 6.0
Rotten Tomatoes: 24%

 

Yet another adaptation of The Three Musketeers has come our way people, this time courtesy of Paul W.S. Anderson, and even though I guess it’s good that at least this adaptation seemed to have fun with the classic source material by Alexandre Dumas, that’s pretty much the only good thing I can say about it, because everything else is pretty damn messy. Not to mention that I’m only mentioning that as a “good” thing because at least a breezy approach to the novel differentiates it a bit from the many other adaptations of it that we’ve been subject to in the past, but it also makes it look as a “for dummies” version of the book, and in every other respect it’s the same as those aforementioned slew of past interpretations.

It’s a very campy movie, you get people from seventeenth century Europe uttering the most ridiculous lines of dialogue you can imagine, a really stale combination of dialogue from every other period epic made in Hollywood with slang that was invented less than a decade ago, much less a century or four. And that’s actually a good description of how this film essentially plays out, it doesn’t know if it wants to be an old-fashioned action adventure epic or a CGI-ladden reimagining of timeless characters and a timeless plot. So, what do we get? A really shoddy attempt to pull both off, and failing at one worse than it already did at the other.

So yes, if you want to see a film try to combine the efforts of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (as in, the great action and flamboyance of that) with those of the Sherlock Holmes franchise (as in, a new reimagining of it all with special effects and the characters having gadgets) then I guess you can go check this one out. Because, make no mistake, the one thing this one actually tries really hard to do is establish itself as a potential franchise. You even get the ending that seems to set up a second film, so you know they really want to make another one. Thankfully, though, the film has been a commercial disappointment ($120 million worldwide against a $75 million budget, but with barely over $20 million coming from the States), not to mention that unlike the aforementioned two franchises, this one has no Johnny Depp or Robert Downey Jr., no actor ready to really immerse themselves in their characters, Christoph Waltz I guess tries, but not nearly hard enough.

This time around our titular threesome is played by Matthew Macfadyen (Athos), Luke Evans (Aramis) and Ray Stevenson (Porthos), and even though in theory this is trying to be a revamp of the source material, their personalities are the same as they have ever been. And I use the word “personality” lightly, because they never are given any room to establish themselves as characters, much less establish their famous dynamic, thus making their “All for one and one for all!” motto sound fake.

Oh, and you also have Logan Lerman as D’Artagnan, the wannabe musketeer. And this to me was the most disappointing part of the film, not because I think Mr. Lerman’s unlikable and, frankly, cocky performance as D’Artagnan is what did the film in, the film would’ve still been bad without it, but because Mr. Lerman is the guy that’s been cast as Charlie in next year’s film adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, one of my favorite novels of all-time, so I’m now fearing about how he’ll treat one of my favorite characters.

The rest of the cast is filled with Orlando Bloom, as the Duke of Buckingham, one of the villains in the picture, and he’s plain bad here. Then there’s Mr. Anderson’s wife, and the star of his Resident Evil movies, Milla Jovovich as Milady who has all these battle skills that kind of match those of the Musketeers. And there’s also the aforementioned Mr. Waltz, who plays the famous villain of their story, Cardinal Richelieu, and in paper he’s a damn fine choice to play the bad guy of this story, and he’s clearly having a ball playing the role, that’s obvious here, but Mr. Anderson doesn’t let us spend much time with him and Mr. Waltz can’t really dig into the ridiculous situation he’s in and unleash the campy comedic potential of the role.

When it becomes obvious that the characters are horribly done here, the film dumps any sort of development possible with them and focuses entirely on delivering everything their special-effects budget allowed them to, not a single one of the things they come up with being particularly inspired. If you’ve read the novel, skip this film, there’s no respect paid to its source material, nor any interest paid to the history of the time. If you’ve seen some of the other adaptations, skip this film, there’s nothing here the others haven’t touched upon. If you like good movies, skip this film, this one’s not worth your money. We get a film that doesn’t know what sort of action adventure it wants to be, and instead it fails as both the lighter swashbuckling fare and the effects-heavy period epic.

Grade: C-

Paranormal Activity 3

26 Nov

Title: Paranormal Activity 3
Year: 2011
Directors: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Writer: Christopher Landon, based on the film by Oren Peli
Starring: Chloe Csengery, Jessica Tyler Brown, Christopher Nicholas Smith
MPAA Rating: R, some violence, language, brief sexuality and drug use
Runtime: 84 min
Major Awards: –
IMDb Rating: 6.4
Rotten Tomatoes: 67%

 

Now that the Saw movies are gone, we obviously need another horror franchise to produce a new entry like clockwork every year around Halloween time. Fortunately, the Paranormal Activity team is more than up to the task as they have proven for the third straight October, with Paranormal Activity 3 again being made for a measly $5 million budget and having already grossed close to $200 million, thanks to a monster opening weekend that set the all-time record for an October release. So yes, don’t expect these films to stop coming out any time soon. And, you know what? I’m all for it, because these films are not just money-making cows, they’re actually pretty damn solid horror films, too.

The original Paranormal Activity of course was a huge phenomenon, made for just $15’000 and grossing over $190 million, it presented us with this “found footage” movie about a couple being haunted by a supernatural presence that inhabited their home. That film was tremendously effective, the low-budget effect and overall look to the film added a lot to how scary it was, and had you at the edge of your seat for its entirety. The second one was released last year, and I gave it a B grade, a respectable one for any sort of sequel I think, and even though that one didn’t cover any new ground that was missed by the first one it showed that all you need is a spooky premise and that alone can work like gangbusters for a lot of films to come.

Same thing goes for this third go-round, this is still a sequel that uses most of the tricks the first one did, so I guess the result of them isn’t as scary as it was the first time you saw them. But those scares are still so effective you can be sure that they still work damn well in this one, and I actually pride myself in knowing that I don’t scare easy with horror films, so when I tell you that Paranormal Activity 3 is a really good film to get you all riled up and tense and get a few scares out of, I’m actually telling the truth. And that actually made me realize one thing, that it’s a good thing that this franchise doesn’t try to totally change what’s been a proven success for them. I mean, look at how Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 turned out because of that, it sucked, and the other hand this is a franchise that’s smart enough to know that its effective combination of mockumentary style with naturalistic performances and amping up the scares little by little works extremely well for them, so they stick by it.

That’s not to say that the films are all exactly the same as the previous one, because that wouldn’t be true, the fact that they all use some new tricks and work their way to create some sort of mythology to the world surrounding the house is good enough for us to care about this as a good horror franchise, so long as they stay true to their roots. And in what I thought was a smart move to do just that, the studio got Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman to share directing duties. That’s a smart move because instead of going for some more veteran director they got the guys that brought us Catfish last year (I gave that one a B), the film that was a really smart documentary about the dangers of potentially embarking on an online relationship. That film of course sparked controversy about whether it was real or if it was just a really ingenious fluke, so the two seemed poised to make a film that pretended it was based on true events, and they’re very good at doing exactly what worked before well, and adding a few new tricks of their own along the way, proving with this one that they weren’t just the stunt artists some suggested they were after Catfish.

This third time around we get a prequel, as the sisters we know from the first two films delve into some old VHS tapes that see their childhood memories from 1988, a time that was alluded to in the first two films of the franchise. So we see how the two little girls, their mom and their stepdad were tormented all those years ago, and it just so happens that the dad films weddings for a living so he has all of these cameras at the ready to set up and record when the disturbances start happening. There’s this awesome little touch that Mr. Joost and Mr. Schulman exploit to awesome effect that sees one of these cameras being put into one of those rotating fans that faces the kitchen and the dining room as it makes its continuous rotation, so we get to see stuff happening and then we get out of the frame and our imagination does the rest, that was just a really neat trick in my opinion.

The verdict is as plain as simple as this: if you liked the two previous Paranormal Activity flicks, you’re bound to find this one just as good. If you didn’t like the first two, then go ahead and avoid this one because it’s essentially just the same thing. This is a really sharp horror film though, one that has this really nice energy to it, that knows damn well what its strengths are and exploits them for our entertainment. Yes, of course there are some holes in the logic at the very core of these films, but that’s part of these films, you can’t hold it against them, and if you do you might as well stop now because these will be coming your way for many Halloween’s to come.

Grade: B

Trespass

26 Nov

Title: Trespass
Year: 2011
Director: Joel Schumacher
Writer: Karl Gajdusek
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Nicole Kidman, Cam Gigandet, Jordana Spiro, Ben Mendelsohn
MPAA Rating: R, violence and terror, pervasive language and some brief drug use
Runtime: 91 min
Major Awards: –
IMDb Rating: 5.3
Rotten Tomatoes: 11%

When I heard there was a psychological thriller made by Joel Schumacher and starring Nicolas Cage I just couldn’t wait to get my hands on it, the combination of the two seem destined to make this one the sort of train wreck of a movie that I would like to watch and laugh at. Yes, Nicole Kidman co-starred here, and that indeed gave it a sense of respectability, but I mean, it was obvious this one was going to suck. Thankfully, reception to the film indeed indicated it was horrible, and after grossing a measly $25’000 at the box office (against a $35 million budget) the film was pulled from theaters after just ten days, and only an extra week after that passed before it was available on DVD.

Mr. Schumacher is of course best known for his entries in the Batman franchise, with 1995’s Batman Forever (which starred Ms. Kidman) and, most infamously, the sequel to that one, 1997’s Batman & Robin, which was just utterly horrible and is best remembered because of the nipples in George Clooney’s batsuit. He has some good films in his filmography but lately Mr. Schumacher has become a director I just don’t really care for at all, he directed 2003’s Phone Booth which I thought was damn great, but other than that he’s just been churning out all of these really mediocre films again and again, like last year’s Twelve (to which I gave a C-).

Trespass is another one of those really mediocre films, the kind of thriller that Mr. Schumacher can probably now make without any effort at all and that’s just really bad entertainment, I really can’t see anyone liking this film. But then there’s Nicolas Cage. This is an actor who’s become famous nowadays not for his great performances of the past (the guy has an Oscar, people) but because for the past decade or so the man has apparently been saying yes to every script that comes his way, even though the vast majority of the times those turn out to be seriously horrible films.

I count myself amongst those who can’t wait to see what Mr. Cage does next, and that’s precisely because he’s become such a weird kind of sellout, the guy will play any kind of role no questions asked. And I’m interested in that because in the occasions when the films he makes aren’t bad, they either turn out to be seriously awesome like The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans from 2009 which proved the guy can still be a damn fine actor, or they get to the point in which they’re so crazy bad that they fly off the rails and end up being really entertaining, which was the case previously this year with the unhinged Drive Angry, to which I actually gave a B+.

There are moments in Trespass that made me think this one was part of that group, the films that are so bad they actually become good halfway through their running time, mostly because the dialogue here is already so ridiculously frantic that you can just imagine how hilarious it sounds coming from the mouth of Mr. Cage, the lines he gets here are just prime for a guy like him who just loves to amp it up to eleven and overact his ass off.

Mr. Cage’s character here is Kyle Miller, a diamond dealer close to going bald who has a troubled relationship with his wife, which is the character Ms. Kidman plays here. That already-troubled marriage is put to the ultimate test as a team of crooks invades their home (yes, this is a home invasion claustrophobic thriller done by Joel Schumacher, you can go ahead and giggle at what’s to come next). What’s awesome is that the reason for the break-in is never really clear and the thieves actually start offering up all these different reasons for why they broke in and what they want to get, it’s all kinds of funny.

Everything that happens afterwards is just as silly, you have a daughter who left home in the nick of time coming back and instead of calling for help as she heard the menacing voices of the thieves she calls for her mom and dad. And then of course you have this stupid little sideplot in which Ms. Kidman’s character realizes that one of the crooks is actually the security guard with whom she had been trading lustful glances. That security guard is played by Cam Gigandet who’s just horrible in the role, twitching every second and trying to look like a psycho, because that’s apparently mandatory for this group of thieves, they’re all made out to look as crazy people with some sort of mania, which leads to actors trying to match Mr. Cage’s overacting. Which, in case you were wondering, just can’t be done.

This is a bad movie people, we get crooks who change the reason for their criminal endeavor every other second, and it just starts off totally crazy and just adds a lot of ridiculous kooky stuff to it as it goes along. And it doesn’t matter because Mr. Schumacher directs it in a way that he makes it obvious he doesn’t care about how much he throws into this one and just how little of it is actually plausible. And yet, I can’t get myself to hate this film, because even though it’s not a so-bad-it’s-good film from Nicolas Cage, there’s still something fun about seeing him being given free range to start talking feverishly at a thousand miles an hour.

Grade: C

Fireflies in the Garden

24 Nov

Title: Fireflies in the Garden
Year: 2011
Director: Dennis Lee
Writer: Dennis Lee
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Willem Dafoe, Emily Watson, Julia Roberts, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hayden Panettiere, Ioan Gruffudd, Cayden Boyd
MPAA Rating: R, language and some sexual content
Runtime: 98 min
Major Awards: –
IMDb Rating: 6.6
Rotten Tomatoes: 21%

One look at the cast listing for Fireflies in the Garden and you can’t help but be a bit impressed and get your hopes up for the movie, Willem Dafoe, Julia Roberts and Emily Watson headline the supporting cast and the lead role is in the hands of Ryan Reynolds. Now, granted, Mr. Reynolds isn’t exactly a great actor, and is having a disappointing 2011 for me, with his foray into superhero status with the Green Lantern failing to impress (I gave it a C+) and his R-rated comedy with Jason Bateman, The Change-Up, being even worse (a C grade from me). But the guy can also be damn good as we saw in last year’s superb Buried (I gave that one an A-) or at the very least be super charming and likable, as evidenced in Definitely, Maybe. Thing is, I looked at this cast and I couldn’t help but get excited, no matter how much the jury is still out on Mr. Reynolds for me, I’m just too big a Julia Roberts fanboy not to get giddy when reading her name on a poster.

But then you get to the other side of the story surrounding this film and you started expecting the worst just as the cast listing was making you hope for the best. That part of the story being the one that shows you that it actually premiered in the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival. Yes, you read that right, 2008.  99% of the time when films are delayed over three years it means they weren’t very good to start with, so I had to head into this one with a grain of salt, as it apparently had only been released on theaters after a very big push by the lovely Ms. Roberts to get this film to be seen. And, I’m pained to say, this one was better off not seeing the light of day, actually. It’s not a horrible film, not by any means, and the cast is rock solid, but even at ninety-eight minutes this one feels like it just drags along, a rather boring melodrama that not even those big names could turn into something of substance.

It’s just your kind of typical melodrama that spans three different generations and veers from scenes set in the past and those set in the present, it offers nothing worth noting, which is just a huge pity when you have a cast like the one writer-director Dennis Lee had to work with here. Yesterday I saw a film, Texas Killing Fields, a crime thriller that was just a rehash of so many things we have seen in a lot of films just like it, which is why, no matter how good its cast was, I couldn’t really get myself behind it. A similar thing happened to me with Fireflies in the Garden, the film offers a lot of familiar themes about family and coming to terms with your parents, and it treads across them using a lot of characters and situations we have seen in many films before, so there’s really nothing new here to really get you engaged.

Mr. Reynolds’ character here, Michael, is a successful novelist who comes home after quite some time to celebrate his mother’s graduation from college, but the reunion is struck by tragedy as she dies in a car accident just as he arrives. So now you have the gathered family grieving over the loss of the mother, Ms. Roberts’ character, while at the same trying to learn about what Michael has been up to all these years.

The reason why Michael hasn’t been as present, it becomes quite obvious, is his domineering father, played by Willem Dafoe, the type of dad we have seen in a lot of films, one who expected too much of his son as a kid and was incredibly hard on him, and that even as a grown-up, and a successful one at that, still treats him with a horrible kind of condescension, when he’s really just showing an insecurity enabled by his son achieving things he wanted to achieve himself. It comes as no surprise that Michael has wanted to stay away from him, nor that his latest novel chronicles his unhappy childhood and seems to be a lash against his father.

These are all capable actors gathered here to tell the story of this dysfunctional family, but the story is just so typical that I couldn’t really get behind it, and I didn’t live the to-and-fro between the past and present. I mean, Ms. Roberts as the loving mom and Mr. Dafoe as the horrible dad are good actors, but together they’re not really well matched at all and their dynamic suffers because of that, not to mention that some of lines of dialogue Mr. Dafoe has to say as the bad father can seem laughable at times.

These may be good actors, but the film is just so dull (except for those couple of raging outbursts courtesy of the great Ms. Watson) and kind of corny, too, as it’s shot (by Ms. Roberts’ husband, Danny Moder) in a way that makes it seem just like a sappy made-for-TV movie. Plus, the fact that we have seen all of these elements before makes the film drag along, and those moments of “discovery” aren’t that at all, which in turns makes its ending that suggests forgiveness feel absolutely unearned. Not to mention that I just couldn’t believe the fact that they wanted to make it seem as though Ryan Reynolds could ever be the son of Julia Roberts.

Grade: C+

Texas Killing Fields

24 Nov

Title: Texas Killing Fields
Year: 2011
Director: Ami Canaan Mann
Writer: Don Ferrarone
Starring: Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jessica Chastain, Chloë Grace Moretz, Jason Clarke
MPAA Rating: R, violence and language including some sexual references
Runtime: 105 min
Major Awards: –
IMDb Rating: 5.5
Rotten Tomatoes: 35%

And so we arrive at the fifth stop in the Jessica Chastain Breakout Tour 2011. I, like many, have been making note of the fact that Ms. Chastain is becoming tremendously ubiquitous this year, using the whole of 2011 as one huge coming-out party to establish herself as one of the very best even though she’s only been at it for a year, a party that isn’t stopping anytime soon, with Coriolanus and Wilde Salome still to come. The thing is that not only has Ms. Chastain seemingly been in every other film this year, not only has she been good in them, but she’s been in some spectacularly great films. I mean, The Tree of Life is masterpiece which I gave a perfect score to, The Help I gave an A- to, I awarded a B+ to The Debt and gave an A to the last film of hers I had seen, Jeff Nichols’ brilliant Take Shelter. Her perfect streak, however, ends with Texas Killing Fields, which I just saw.

Don’t get me wrong, Ms. Chaistain is perfectly fine here, and the film is actually a decent enough crime thriller, but it just wasn’t original at all to me, and I can’t recommend it because of that, because it’s just giving us stuff that we’ve seen in way too many films of its kind before. Not to mention that I thought the cast, which also included Sam Worthington (who also starred in The Debt with Ms. Chastain), Jeffrey Dean Morgan and the awesome Chloë Grace Moretz had much more potential than what was realized on-screen.

We’re thrown into the Texas bayou, where of course pretty horrible stuff happens more than in your average location, and which gives us these two local detectives trying to figure out the murder of a young girl. Look, the film does its job, I want to make that clear, it tells an above-average crime story in its center and fills the gaps in with looks at small-town police work and daily life, even if the latter two it doesn’t do as effectively. Still, it’s good that we get to know the places and the faces, especially when we have fine actors doing the telling, I just thought that this kind of stuff is the sort we can find in just as good a quality, if not better, in a couple of the procedurals currently on TV.

Don Ferrarone, a former DEA agent an advisor on films such as Man on Fire and Enemy of the State, makes his screenwriting debut here, with directing duties falling onto the equally unexperienced Ami Canaan Mann, who had only directed another feature-length film and that was back in 2001 and was little-seen (though in the interim she did direct an episode of Friday Night Lights, the best TV series of all-time in my humble opinion), she’s the daughter of Michael Mann, who acted as a producer here and I’m guessing paired her up with Mr. Ferrarone who acted as an advisor on his Miami Vice film adaptation. The thing is, it kind of shows in this film that they were a pair that hasn’t had much experience crafting these films, because while the atmosphere feels believable and sucks you in, the character development is just super messy and does nothing to keep you engaged in the proceedings.

It’s that lack of detail that made this film one I wouldn’t really recommend, because while the players assembled in front of the camera are all great, Mr. Worthington actually delivering one of the better performances I’ve seen of him, the plot and dynamics of this whole film just seem rehashed from one too many TV shows which was what lost my attention. Not to mention that, in the moments that the film deviated from the formulaic approach, it went way off the rails and had me lose my grasp on the story, with scenes that didn’t always follow each other and the role of the characters not always super clear. You got presented to stuff that seemed vital and then you lost sight of them, the elements were there for this to be a really decent little crime thriller but it’s just to messy to get its act together, literally.

The good thing, like I said, is that however messy the direction otherwise is, Ms. Mann shows a great hand at creating a really effective atmosphere in this film. The quiet moments, the interrogation scenes, the car chase, those were all really well done. And the cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh (an Oscar-nominee for The Piano and who will also work with Michael Mann on his upcoming Luck pilot for HBO) was really effective, making every location seem like a place in which something huge was happening. So yes, there were some good parts, and the performances by absolutely everyone involved here were great, it’s just that the plot structure was all over the place, and once you got past the police case, which wasn’t all that interesting to begin with, you’re left with characters that you can’t really invest on because they’re so underdeveloped, no matter who’s playing them. It’s a respectful attempt, but I couldn’t help but feel that Texas Killing Fields would have worked much better as some kind of supersized pilot episode for an upcoming network procedural.

Grade: C+