Thursday, October 31, 2013

Time is on His Side: ABOUT TIME


It was Pauline Kael who said “melodrama with a fast pace can be much more exciting - and more honest, too - than feeble pretentious attempts at drama.” So it is with About Time, the new film from Richard Curtis, the writer-director of Love Actually, that sentimental hydra-headed Christmastime romantic comedy that some say drowns in sappiness as if that’s a bad thing. His new film is a romance about falling in love with a woman, but even more so about falling in love with life itself, helped along by important relationships and Big Moments – births, deaths, weddings, funerals – that make one stop and appreciate time as it goes by. To this is added a light dusting of high concept sci-fi that’s at once easily digestible and, just below the surface, as incomprehensible as any time travel plotting can grow when one stares at it for too long. But anyway, this isn’t a movie that one experiences with the head, intending to chart it out for one’s date afterwards, arranging straws into timelines on the dinner table. This is a movie that socked me in the heart early and often, terrifically emotionally manipulative and much more involving than feebler fare.

It starts with Tim (Domhnall Gleeson, a Weasley son) turning 21 and learning a family secret, so secret neither his mother (Lindsay Duncan) nor sister (Lydia Wilson) knows. His father (Bill Nighy) calls him into his study, sits him down, and says that all the men in his family can travel through time. “It’s not a joke,” he so flatly states it must be true. With this information comes knowledge of the ability’s restrictions, learned, we’re meant to assume, through generations of trial and error. He can only travel within the space of his own lifetime. He can only travel backwards, other than returning to the present, of course. He can only return to places and times he knows. To achieve this feat, he simply has to stand in the dark, clench his fists, and think his way there.

It all sounds so simple, and in practice it is. The film uses the sci-fi hook to power its storytelling and uses the rules to keep the plot from spinning out of control. It’s silliness treated if not literally seriously, than emotionally seriously. It helps that Nighy is such a warm presence, eager in his fatherly insistence on ethical uses of time travel. Look not for riches or manipulations, he says, but for generating more chances to do what you love. What’s he done with this gift? He says he has found more reading time, mostly.

Tim wants a girlfriend and at first sets about creating his own personal Groundhog Day in order to gather information to woo his crushes. Once he realizes that no matter how often he tries to redo moments to make them just right, others will behave in unpredictable ways, he simply moves on with his life. He moves to London, gets a low level job at a law firm, meets new friends, and falls in love at first sight with a young woman (Rachel McAdams, exuding sunny appeal) he meets by pure coincidence. In this story of boy meets girl, boy loses girl by going back inadvertently changing their meeting. He erases it, in fact.

He must win her back by going back, using his powers not to control, but only to be a better flirt and a better lover. He’ll still redo social stumbles, but he’s just as likely to jump back and relive a great moment. There’s a funny bit where he selfishly relives a Big Deal three times, and then is too exhausted to go again when McAdams asks him to. He time-traveled and didn’t even have to.

As the film progresses through moments romantic, comedic, and dramatic, it builds up a picture of a young man learning to come to terms with the finite nature of life. Sometimes the story will even take a break from its mild sci-fi possibilities and go for a stretch without bringing up its central premise at all, playing out as tasteful, sentimental melodrama. It works on that level quite nicely. Principally a romance between two characters rather charmingly portrayed (Domhnall and McAdams have an on-screen connection that instantly provoked my rooting interest) this is a movie full of tender, warm, heartfelt moments of swooping, swooning true love and all that mushy stuff. It’s a movie about learning to experience life as it happens instead of always striving for some ideal life you feel you aren’t living, but could be or should be.

About Time uses its modest time travel trappings not as plot mechanics, but as metaphor for learning how to manage and truly appreciate the time you have with those who love you. It’s a warm and fuzzy movie that tells comfortable, but no less moving, truths. It has the romance of a cozy rom com, the philosophy of a greeting card, and the sentimentality of a life insurance commercial. But the combination comes together so wonderfully that it won me over all the same. It’s all a slick and lovely artifice through which Curtis can movingly and sweetly find some great emotional resonances. A lush piano score that dances around the tune of one of my favorite Ben Folds songs ties together a story that’s small in scope, telling only of one young man’s maturation through complications both romantic and temporal. And yet its syrupy life-affirming implications are so grandly expressive. It’s a movie of broad feeling and overflowing heart.

Note: This is undoubtedly the mildest R-rated film I’ve seen in quite some time. It has a handful of stronger profanities deployed tastefully and a few non-explicit references to sex. Why that’s not considered a PG-13 here when I’ve seen worse in PG-13s past (in trailers, even), is beyond me. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Slave Narrative: 12 YEARS A SLAVE


Solomon Northup was a talented violinist who was hired to play for parties and other social gatherings near his home. He lived in upstate New York with his wife and three children. Because he was born in 1808 and was black, it is important to note that he was a free man. But that would not always be the case. British director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, based on Northup’s memoir of the same name, tells the story of how, in 1841, this free man was kidnapped, taken to the South, and sold into slavery. It is not a film about slavery, but about a slave. In the process it becomes a catalogue of injustices that can only hint at the depths of depravity the American slave trade contained. Told wholly from a black perspective, the film belongs to a rich history of slave narratives, a harrowing literary genre that has rarely made the leap to the movie screen so intact. Too often softened and glamorized by interjecting noble white presence into the core of the narrative arc, this film finds at its center simply, powerfully, Mr. Northup. The kidnapping is only an extra layer of injustice, to most fully embody the tragedy of slavery and make thoroughly real how dehumanizing an institution it is.

Slavery is something that many Americans understand historically and academically, but here is a film that says look, feel the pain, understand. This is a film of unrelenting brutality. Though I sat through the whole film, I must admit to averting my eyes at the worst of the violence. A scene late in the film lingers on flesh torn from a slave woman’s back as the plantation’s master whips her. The bloody ripping and slicing is a monstrously effective visual that’s uncomfortable and upsetting. It feels honest, not exploitative of real world violence nor mean-spirited towards the audience. It’s simply presented, raw and exposed. It at times recalls Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ with its commitment to showing battered bodies, torn flesh, and logging blows of whips and cudgels. The sound design blasts these strikes out of the speakers loudly, rattling the audience’s eardrums with their force and violence. When Northup is first captured, he pleads for his freedom, citing his free man status. “Show us your papers,” the kidnappers snarl. When Northup cannot – nor could he move his manacled hands even if he had papers – his back is bludgeoned in one long take, each smack one of terrifying force, physically and aurally.

Viewed in conjunction with McQueen’s other films, the prison hunger strike procedural Hunger and sex addiction drama Shame, it’s clear he’s a director interested in the human body in relationship to the human soul and the limits past which both can be pushed. In 12 Years a Slave, the sins of the country’s moral negotiations are raked across the bodies of the enslaved, while others go about their business, aware, but unable or unwilling to help. In a harrowing moment of sustained painful suspense, McQueen’s camera watches for an agonizingly long period of time as a slave hangs from a noose on a low branch, saved only by standing and shifting on his tiptoes slipping in mud. On all sides, those who live on the plantation – black and white alike – continue their routines, eyes averted. In the distance, we can hear the sound of children playing.

There are no dates placed on screen to mark the passage of time. The title plainly states the narrative’s duration. We know that Solomon Northup will remain enslaved for 12 long, painful years, but we’re as lost in the accumulation of incident as he is. Time is a blur of terrors and anxiety that slowly gives way to reluctant resignation. He is trying to survive. At the center of the film is a monumental performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor, long a welcome screen presence in films as diverse as Inside Man, Love Actually, and Children of Men. Here, Ejiofor shows remarkable restraint, never overplaying the emotional journey, trusting the facts of the narrative and subtle shifts in his behavior and expression to sell the depths of horror Northup saw and the resilience Northup displayed. John Ridley’s script follows him from a slave market overseen by Paul Giamatti to several different plantations owned by the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, and Bryan Batt. Though there are some differences between them – some moderately kinder, others ruthlessly cruel – they all are doing their part to perpetuate poisonous beliefs and uphold a horrendous institution.

Though the film is pitched at a relentlessly grim and miserable abusive level, one can never feel prepared for the cruelty to come. McQueen’s use of carefully composed, sleek cinematography and studied framing (with his usual cinematographer Sean Bobbitt) doesn’t get in the way of the impact. When a plantation owner’s wife suddenly hurls a glass at a slave woman’s head, object making contact with skull with a sickening crack, it is startling. This is a world where that doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. And that’s what horrifying. The writing for and acting of the ensemble has a sense of overwhelming specificity. The film never stoops to viewing either blacks or whites homogenously. Much like the owners have their differences, we see here slaves who become favored (Alfre Woodard), who agitate for rebellion (Michael K. Williams), and who are singled out for specific abuses (Lupita Nyong’o). There’s a variety here in a film that finds much diversity in corners of history that too easily are reduced into types. It helps keep the film from finding false notes of victory. When Northup’s 12 years are up and he’s finally freed, he finds no retribution and only his own personal victory. As he’s driven away, he leaves every other character behind, still slaving or enslaved. 

We’re currently living through a time in this country in which a great many people find it politically convenient not to know things about our history, to play fast and loose with facts and behave cavalier towards context. We’re living in a time when people of a certain political persuasion can not only seriously speak lies like slavery was “a blessing in disguise” or that the South’s economy was not built on the backs of slaves, but have a great many people believe such erroneous sentiments. Here is a film that lays out the facts of history unblinking, in all its horror and heartbreak, in all its soul-draining sinfulness and tells us to look at just one story, to feel just a fraction of centuries of pain, and to see anew our history as it is recreated in front of our eyes.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Project DCOM #5: HALLOWEENTOWN


It's clear from the opening shot of a jack-o'-lantern, before the title Halloweentown even appears, that this is a movie built to tie-in to a specific holiday. (No, not Arbor Day.) This marks Disney Channel's second annual mildly creepy October movie. It's a story about another dimension that houses the homes of all manner of beasties from folklore and fairytales, but there's not a hint of true malevolence to be found. It's aimed squarely at kids and as such takes place largely in daylight and the danger within is treated with gravity leavened by enough sweetness and optimism that there's never any doubt that it'll all be okay by the end.

At the start we're in our world when meet a spirited 13-year-old girl (Kimberly J. Brown) who wonders why her mother (Judith Hoag) has not and will never let her and her younger brother (Joey Zimmerman) and sister (Emily Roeske) celebrate Halloween. It's a question that's soon to be answered this particular year by the arrival of their grandmother, played by a true Hollywood legend: Debbie Reynolds. No longer the fresh-faced ingénue of Singin’ in the Rain, she still sparkles natural charm with each twinkle of her eyes. By 1998 she had aged gracefully into the grandmotherly roles she began taking. In this movie, the sweet old woman only wants her daughter and grandkids to move back to her hometown, a place her daughter would rather forget.

That would be Halloweentown and it's a secret the older lady's not planning on keeping this year. For you see, Grandma is a witch. You could've gathered as much from her entrance as a sort of bizzaro Mary Poppins (though we're quickly made to understand that she's even sweeter and more overtly indulgent a figure). She flies into the picture on a floating bus and disembarks with her levitating umbrella and a sentient bottomless bag filled to overflowing and then some with Halloween decorations, costumes, and a preponderance of sugary snacks. If her daughter won't provide Halloween to her grandkids, then she'll do it herself. Of course, for her, every day is October 31. One thing leads to another and the young teen overhears her grandmother chastising her mother for slacking on the oldest child's witch training. Once the secret's overheard, the kids sneak out after Grandma and end up following her right onto the bus to Halloweentown.

This is clearly a low-budget production, but the star location nonetheless shows some imaginative design. It's simple, like a real-world small town's Halloween superstore burst and rained decorations all over downtown. Happily amazed and not scared one bit, the kids wander around looking for their grandma. The youngest asks if the town's in the middle of a Halloween party. It's a festive place with cobwebs and pumpkins everywhere you look. The residents are average folks going about their business, shopping, chatting, and bowling, normal people but for the practical masks and sculpted makeup that signifies them as otherworldly in some way. My favorite was the two-headed bus station clerk who argues with himself about what one head is consuming, since what one head eats, the whole body digests. After Head 1 takes a sip of coffee, Head 2 shouts, "You're killing me!"

Despite all the monsters, creatures, and assorted spooky sights, the production is too colorful and good-natured to disturb in any way. Reynolds is the biggest reason for this. She brings a warm bubbly presence that stays chipper even as she investigates some strange happenings around town, where the movie comes closest to almost threatening to be nearly creepy. But not to worry. It's all so sweet, brightly lit, and full of gentle comedy that plays likably with themes of family and identity, sticking up for yourself, and learning about your past in order to stay true to who you are. It'd be stretching to say director Duwayne Dunham, who had previously helmed Disney’s 1993 live action theatrical release Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, and writers Paul Bernbaum, Jon Cooksey and Ali Marie Matheson, sitcom veterans all, were trying to say anything particularly substantive about the immigrant experience, but there's a bit of that floating around as a mild spice in this pleasant witch's brew of a TV movie.

There's some external conflict about an encroaching dark curse that drives the plot, but it never feels truly perilous, although the climactic action is just dangerous enough to prompt these rather pluckily sunny kids into action. It's urgent enough to provide some force to propel the narrative. I like how it all comes down to a scavenger hunt of sorts. This is a movie refreshingly and charmingly aimed directly at a child's point of view. Not to say adults can't enjoy it - I certainly found it a mild diversion with modest charms - but it's built with a solid understanding of the kind of channel surfing elementary-age kid who'd be much better off landing on Halloweentown instead of Halloween in the last week of October.

Up next: Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Old, Tired, Mean: BAD GRANDPA


When Amy Poehler was on The Ellen DeGeneres Show earlier this week, she talked about her disdain for pranks. Ellen showed her several YouTube videos of people going to elaborate lengths scaring friends and family. After each one, the camera would cut back to Poehler, brow furrowed, mouth drawn into an exaggerated frown. “How about that one?” Ellen would ask. “Nope,” Poehler would grunt. I’m glad she did that, not just because it was a funny bit, but also because it helped me know what my face probably looked like for most of Bad Grandpa. It’s a loosely plotted movie that is wall-to-wall hidden-camera pranks, most of them bizarre, upsetting, or filthy behavior that happens in the vicinity of strangers. As I watched, I felt my face scrunch up for so long I was nearly worried it would stay that way. As the antics played out across the screen, I spent my time debating logistics – how did they film this? – and worrying about the well-being of the innocent bystanders.

These are no Candid Camera good-natured goofs. The movie comes from star Johnny Knoxville and director Jeff Tremaine, the pranksters behind the Jackass show and movies in which a team of like-minded buddies would egg each other on into masochistic pranks involving shock gross out squirminess and threats of bodily harm, all for our ostensible amusement. Here, the humor comes from staging dangerous and crude stunts in front of the general public. It’s no longer masochism; it’s mean-spirited. Take, for instance, an early scene in which Knoxville, who spends the entire movie in convincing old-age makeup playing the Bad Grandpa of the title, hosts an estate sale. He sits down on an adjustable bed and goads a middle-aged woman, who thinks she’s just a customer at an average sale, into testing the bed’s buttons. It predictably goes haywire, snapping upright from both ends and trapping Knoxville inside. The camera lingers on the trembling woman in glee as Knoxville extricates himself. Relishing the poor woman’s fright isn’t funny. It’s just cruel.

The plot, such as it is, involves the Bad Grandpa on a road trip to take his eight-year-old grandson (Jackson Nicoll) to the boy’s dad. It’s mainly an excuse to stage moments like shoplifting from a convenience store, which culminates in the manager yelling at them in the parking lot, saying quite rightly that the boy should be taken away from him. Another gag involves a funeral with invited strangers, thinking they’re helping a poor old man’s grief, witnessing the body (fake, of course, but awfully real looking) falling out of the casket, after which Knoxville proceeds to dance with it while angrily insisting the congregation sing a hymn. Other gags include a malfunctioning mechanical contraption launching the Bad Grandpa through a plate glass window, the old man pushed in a shopping cart up to a drive-thru window, a bout of explosive diarrhea that splatters a diner wall, and a crashed beauty pageant featuring a risqué drag performance by the little boy. Bystanders are often more perplexed and weirded out than anything else, especially when, say, Knoxville takes his old man character into a male strip club and tries to muscle his way on stage.

Compare the slack, mean pranks here to Sacha Baron Cohen’s not unproblematic overrated Borat and underrated Bruno. There Cohen tends to go after satirical targets with his hidden-camera improv stunts. He’s hilarious and cringe-worthy at once, precisely because it’s calibrated to tweak racist, xenophobic, and homophobic undercurrents, blowing past the limits of propriety to make a point. When he gets a group of people to sing his fake folk song “Throw the Jew Down the Well,” it’s as upsetting and unnerving as it is hilarious for the bias he unearths. When he throws a cage match in the deep south and suddenly begins making out with his opponent mid-bout, the howls of protest from the drunken crowd give the whole thing an edge of danger and upheaval for the ultimate benefit of all involved, if for nothing else than the societal observation it provokes. When Bad Grandpa goes to a bingo game, drinks the ink out of his markers, pours lime juice down his pants, and aggressively flirts with all the ladies around him, it’s ultimately pointless. I felt bad for those women. They’re the butt of the joke in a scenario that exists only to have us laugh at their discomfort.

I make Bad Grandpa sound like an unendurable experience. I’ve no doubt that for many it would be. For me it could have been and nearly was, but I must confess to laughing right out loud maybe three times, even though all those best jokes are lifted from Little Miss Sunshine and Borat. And there’s some genuine camaraderie between Knoxville and Nicoll that generates a few freestanding moments of mild entertainment when the two characters simply scamper around pulling pranks on each other. Maybe they work well together because they’re on a similar level of juvenile dumbness, a mix of fearless energy and unchecked mischievousness. It’s too bad the movie’s so sour it can’t even capitalize on their chemistry for the sappy grandfather-grandson bonding conclusion it so desperately tries to pull off. For me the biggest laugh comes not from any of the elaborate dangerous or crude stunts the production pulls, but from a comment a woman on the street directs towards the boy when confronted with the pair: “I feel like I should take your picture and see if you’re on a milk carton somewhere.” Otherwise the movie kept waving its pranks in my face asking, “How about that one?” To which I could only reply, “Nope.”

Friday, October 25, 2013

Drug War: THE COUNSELOR


A murky drug war thriller, The Counselor keeps its focus on the people in the middle. This isn’t a story of drug lords and D.E.A. agents. It’s a story of lawyers, money launderers, logisticians, and truck drivers. There’s the Counselor (Michael Fassbender), a lawyer who finds himself nebulously floating between a sleazy nightclub owner (an unnaturally tan Javier Bardem) and a guy with connections (Brad Pitt) as a whole lot of drugs are making their way across the border and through the American West, with Chicago, and a $20 million payday, as a final destination. These three men form the core of the film, although there are choice roles for women (Cameron Diaz and Penélope Cruz) who have more and less power than you’d initially assume. These people are involved to greater or lesser extents in moving drugs and money around the world. They all seem to be in control of their part of the plan, but unexpected variables bring danger quicker than anyone expects. As Pitt explains, for the cartels, decapitation isn’t a result of anger or malice. It’s just business.

The screenplay is by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy. In his unflinchingly hard-bitten narratives like Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men, and The Road (the latter two adapted into recent films), he specializes in prose so economical and spare he doesn’t even have time for such frills as quotation marks or indented paragraphs. In The Counselor, he finds something of a cinematic equivalent as scenes unfold pertinent information slowly, leaving plenty of gaps that may or may not be filled. It’s a thriller that doesn’t hurtle with propulsion, but rather takes its time rewarding patient and indulgent attention on the part of the audience. It’s a chilly red-blooded literary accumulation of details. The sparsely characterized cast of characters shows us these details through their actions, their personas, their crisply written dialogue that leans heavily on its sense of drive and negotiation. Characters are always jostling for the upper hand, feeling each other out, and moving with confident wariness. When not speaking of negotiations and logistics, they’re prone to speaking in sour metaphor or baring their souls accidentally in eccentric anecdotes.

McCarthy invents characters so tersely individual and specific that it’s little wonder that the Coen brothers are the only ones to get his prose exactly right on the screen. Here, without the benefit of his tough descriptions, his narrative leans on the strength of the cast to imbue the characters with life. They do, creating characters who are at times as inscrutable as they are committed to whatever their goals happen to be. It’s a story that finds a new, welcome character actor around every corner, with room for a diamond dealer played by Bruno Ganz, a prisoner played by Rosie Perez, a priest played by Edgar Ramirez, a supplier played by Dean Norris, and more. Each arriving for only a scene or two, they add immediate richness around the edges, a sense that the world of the ensemble contains multitudes, options and tracks that fade out as the plot narrows its focus and the dangers of the game begin to tighten around our leads’ necks.

Long build ups of methodical process, trucks of drugs packed and unpacked, secret meetings in hotel lobbies, revelations of who is spying and who is being spied upon, move along slowly and glossily. Violence comes fast, frightening, and ends just as quickly, leaving only eerie silences behind. Sudden gore gives way to sudden nothing. It’s all subdued, elegantly terse tension, nasty in a dour, matter-of-fact way with flashes of odd dark humor. A motorcyclist’s severed head sits in its helmet. The murderer hits the top with a thwack, sending the head flying out with a thunk. It’s as awful as it is strangely funny in execution, an extra little detail in a production that’s obsessed with finding moments like these. It’s a muted, grimly determined thriller that’s sleekly designed, handsomely photographed, and loves to get darkly strange from time to time. It’s appealing and unpleasant, sensual and a little funny. Just listen to Bardem’s monologue about what Diaz did to his car and tell me that it’s not all of the above.

Director Ridley Scott, in one of his rare modern day efforts (no Gladiator or Blade Runner here), takes a perfume commercial approach to glassy modern architecture and grimy black market transactional back alleys alike. (Scenes set around Bardem’s pool can’t help but unconsciously echo Scott’s 1979 work for Chanel.) When he, with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, finds an image like a pet cheetah stalking a jackrabbit in a southwestern desert, or severed fingertips falling onto wet pavement, he lingers with stoic stylishness, finding the fussy details, but showing them with minimal excitement beyond their visual punch. He and McCarthy blend styles quite nicely here. They were at one point working together on an adaptation of Blood Meridian, but this eccentric original screenplay manages to blend their styles in ways a straight adaptation might not. It’s big, striking, and commercial, but granular, elusive, and specific as well. The Counselor is a movie that looks like a big Hollywood thriller, but it moves with sometimes-unexpected tones and rhythms. It is beautifully ugly, fitting for a movie that regards its characters and story with the cold logic and icy gaze of a predator moving in on its prey.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Project DCOM #4: BRINK!


I thought I had fond, if vague, memories of Brink!, the Disney Channel movie first aired in August 1998. Not too many minutes into the movie, though, I realized I'd never actually seen it. I think I was just remembering the ads, which played nonstop on the channel around that time, especially the moment when the protagonist throws a milkshake in the face of a sneering mean kid. That's some good old fashioned kid movie comeuppance served up in a way so simple and satisfying that it registers even in a 30 second excerpt in a promo meant to get you to watch the whole movie. That it never got me to do so is beside the point.

The kid who does the throwing of the shake is the lead. He's Brink, a guy who loves to strap on some rollerblades and pull off some sweet tricks down at the skate park with a tight group of friends. He's played by Erik von Detten, a teenage boy with long blonde hair and Teen Beat nonthreatening good looks that clearly mark him as the main character. They call themselves the "Soul Skaters," so named because they skate for nothing more than the love of skating. The group dynamic spins around Brink, for no other reason beyond the fact that he's the lead. The Soul Skaters are composed of two slightly sillier guys (Patrick Levis and Asher Gold) and a girl (Christina Vidal) who is an honorary one-of-the-guys, in typical 3 to 1 kid movie fashion. They enjoy skating around, receiving nothing but fun and camaraderie in return.

This is most unlike their rivals, the X-Blades, who are somehow sponsored by vague corporate interests, earning a couple hundred bucks a week to do the same tricks, spins, and jumps the Soul Skaters are doing for free. They also all attend the same school, where the resentment between the two groups manifests itself in pranks (the lead X-Blade, played by Sam Horrigan, gets the aforementioned drink to the face) and one race through the halls of the chill outdoor layout of their Californian public school. The tension between the groups is kicked to a slightly higher level when Brink overhears his parents discussing their family's money problems and decides that X-Blade money could sure come in handy. He suffers from torn allegiances, invited to join the other group, but wanting to keep his sellout status from his best friends.

This obvious but nice conflict doesn't even show itself until over a third of the way through Brink! It's a pokey film, not nearly as insistent as you'd think. Most of the runtime is given over to solid clichés spread awfully thin, playing upon the viewers' patience for blandly photographed skating sequences. By the late 90s, rollerblading, along with BMX biking and skateboarding and similar activities, had moved from fad to codified sport. The X-Games were founded only 3 years earlier. The movie Airborne, which rides over similar terrain, was released two years before that. So much of Brink! is about nothing more than the act of rollerblading itself. Maybe at the time it was enough to show off something "the kids" would like, but the movie plays out with slang-filled dialogue that sounds exactly like an adult wrote how he thought kids talked.

Director Greg Beeman, who previously handled the DCOM Under Wraps, but is otherwise best known for his largely forgotten 1988 Corey Haim/Corey Feldman comedy License to Drive, treats the whole thing with almost admirable nonplussed filmmaking. With a rewrite or two, I could almost imagine a version of the movie that would play out much like an actual young teen's life might. In Jeff Schechter’s script there's some degree of seriousness to Brink's relationship with his parents, who encourage him to get a job, but aren't so sure about the whole rollerblading thing. The conflict between the kids plays out in a way that's on the whole less cartoonish than you'd think. And the stunt work is convincing in an unexaggerated way. But between the sluggish pace (too little plot, character, or visual interest to sustain even 90 minutes) and a maudlin score distractingly slopped over every scene, there's not quite enough here.

Up next: Halloweentown

Friday, October 18, 2013

Hurt People Hurt People: CARRIE


Stephen King’s novel Carrie and the 1976 Brian De Palma film based on it are not particularly frightening examples of the horror genre.  Emphasis is on something more emotionally upsetting than surface scare. They have blunt force pulp power, bludgeoning and disturbing. What makes them something approaching classic is that truly distressing and upsetting material comes well before an ostracized teenage girl has a nasty prank pulled on her at prom and finally snaps in a frenzy of telekinetic fury. No, what’s upsetting about Carrie is the all-too-real horror of everyday cruelty. She’s a girl who is abused at home by a tyrannically religious mother who preaches a twisted gospel of self-loathing and shame, bullied at school by packs of mean girls and boys who perpetuate a cycle of trauma that is seemingly endless. When one girl snarls that Carrie’s “been asking for it since the sixth grade,” it’s hard not to wonder why this wounded young woman could ever been seen as anything other than psychologically brutalized. Sadly, compassion is something easily lost in adolescence, especially in group dynamics when one’s qualms can get swallowed up in mob mentality.

Where the new version of Carrie, a fresh adaptation scripted by Lawrence D. Cohen (he wrote the 1976 version) and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (a writer for Marvel comics as well as TV’s Glee and Big Love), goes right is in its sharp psychological eye in these early sequences of casual real-world cruelty. (Take the writers’ previous works of high school campiness, a focus on religion as familial strain, and a splash of King horror intruding on small town normality, and you have a good start on understanding this film’s approach.) Unlike De Palma’s brash showiness, with its nearly-exploitative eye for bodies on display in all their various states, this adaptation is inspired by the characters’ interiorities. Carrie, who is slowly realizing her telekinesis, is painfully shy, guarded. She’s preemptively defensive and rightfully so. After the opening scene, in which she’s relentlessly mocked in the gym class locker room, her mother picks her up from school. Full of sickly maternal rage, she punishes Carrie, telling her if she hadn’t been sinful that wouldn’t have happened. The poor girl is abused by her peers and then comes home to further punishment. For Carrie, there is no such thing as a safe place. 

Played here by Chloe Grace Moretz, Carrie is a pretty teenage girl who hides it well. She’s restlessly wary, hunched, arms held perpetually in a cautious defensive posture in front of her body that is swimming in formless oversized clothes. Her eyes dart, ready to find the next source of pain. A smile teases across her lips as she comes to realize that she has the ability to move things with her mind, along with a tremble of worry that if anyone found out, she’d only invite more mockery. Her mother (Julianne Moore) has wild hair and tends to hurt herself, pricking her thighs with her sewing needle, clawing at her wrists with her fingernails in religious fervor. It makes sense that she thinks the only reason she has a child is because of spiritual weakness, momentary lapses of sinful behavior. She keeps her daughter in line with threats of violence and confinement. When Carrie gets up the courage to announce that a cute boy (Ansel Elgort) has invited her to prom, her mother responds by telling her not to go. When Carrie pushes back ever so slightly, her mother hits herself repeatedly.

The boy feels sorry for Carrie and has invited her upon the request of his girlfriend (Gabriella Wilde), who regrets the bullying. A far more typical response comes from the ferociously catty mean girl (Portia Doubleday) who blames the victim when bullying gets her banned from prom. “We didn’t even do anything!” she cries, completely missing the point. She, along with her scary boyfriend (Alex Russell) plans to get even, blaming Carrie for missing out on prom. The nasty act they plan – the iconic Carrie prom moment that’s about as spoilable as Psycho’s shower scene, but I’ll avoid mentioning it anyway – is what sets off the more typically horror filled finale. In it, this film, like De Palma’s, becomes bloody. But unlike De Palma’s, this is a tragedy more than a spectacle, a film about a bullied girl who finally gets the strength to lash back at her tormentors and becomes a super-bully in the process, mangling indiscriminately. Even a kindly, well-intentioned teacher (wonderfully played by Judy Greer) gets caught up in the conflagration. This is no mere revenge fantasy. It’s troubling. When the nastiest bullies get taken out in spectacular horror film kills – staged here with freshly inventive jolts and jabs – it’s not only comeuppances. It’s a lament that it has gone this far.

The director here is Kimberly Peirce. Her first two films, 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry and 2008’s Stop-Loss, were haunting dramas that end up as tragedies. They’re about late-adolescent and early-adulthood yearnings, desires, and fluid identities in the process of stabilizing brought up short by intolerance and injustice. Here, in Carrie, those intolerances and injustices do their part in forming Carrie’s identity until the time when she has the empowerment to take control – take full command of her powers, both literal and metaphorical – and seizes it with great violence and only flashes of regret. Peirce handles the interpersonal relationships tenderly and sharply, so that by the time the violence of the finale emerges, almost right out of a comic book adaptation in its splashiness, like an X-Man gone sour, it’s as sad as it is shocking. Peirce makes a sympathetic portrait that’s never a voyeuristic freak show. She looks compassionately and sadly upon the events of the story, finding notes of embarrassment, anger, shame, and pity. Without attacking the material with the same outward bite and sleaze of De Palma, Peirce has made a humane, haunting and affecting adaptation from the inside out.

Unhappiest Place: ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW


As a gigantic international corporation with a carefully guarded reputation as a gleaming beacon of childhood entertainment for the whole family, the Walt Disney Company is certainly ripe for satirical potshots. What little there is to enjoy about first-time filmmaker Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow comes from the moderately naughty fizz that comes from knowing the movie, a black and white indie about a middle-aged man descending into an increasingly hallucinatory mental breakdown while on vacation with his wife and kids, was shot covertly at Disney parks. There’s initially a funny sense of outmaneuvering a would-be omnipotent corporate force to create a film about how, taken to its extreme, omnipresent entertainment in the happiest place on earth can exacerbate a fragile mental state. But after no more than a few minutes, that all wears off and what we’re left with is a scattered and hollow provocation.

Filmed on consumer-grade digital cameras, the movie has a nightmarish home-video quality as the man (Roy Abramsohn) bickers with his wife (Elena Schuber), ignores his children (Katelynn Rodriguez and Jack Dalton), and finds his eye drawn lecherously towards two young French teenage tourists (Danielle Safady and Annet Mahendru) with whom he crosses paths both purposely and accidentally throughout the day. There’s nothing about that premise that needs Disney. Sure, there’s a minor jolt from seeing an early hallucination in which the “It’s a Small World” marionettes appear to glare at the man, but the film largely plays out as a meandering bad-trip travelogue that slowly turns into a darkly loopy sub-Lynchian bit of stupid surrealist posturing.

As soon as it’s clear that the movie would be more or less the same if it took place at Six Flags or Wally World or an abandoned lot, the movie only grows emptier and more unpleasant as it drags itself at an interminable pace towards its conclusion. Are we really supposed to give points for difficulty in assessing this film? It was certainly some kind of feat to sneak into the parks without permits or permission and choreograph the necessary scenes. Moving actors into position and getting dialogue recorded couldn’t have been easy. What about multiple takes? I wonder how they managed that without arousing the suspicion of security?

But these are all questions of logistics and execution. I’m sure the filmmakers would rather me chuckle along with their mildly transgressive (mostly for the contrast with the setting) violent and sexual content, enjoy the half-baked corporate commentary, and feel a twinge of sympathy for a man who is slowly driven insane by trying to survive the happiest place on Earth. But none of that resonated with me. It felt strained and false awfully quickly, coasting on its assumed transgression without making meaning out of it. Try as I might, I simply couldn’t get on board with a movie that could only generate interest in its content insofar as it feels like they’re putting one over on the theme park of its setting. Escape from Tomorrow is a movie with a deadened and deadening prankish spirit married to slight, awkward, ultimately pointless filmmaking. I cringed at the endless stiffly written scenes and at a few obviously green-screened shots, and sat with my arms crossed, waiting for it add up to anything at all, or, failing that, for it all to be over.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Project DCOM #3: YOU LUCKY DOG


I must admit that when I hit play on 1998’s You Lucky Dog, I was not expecting good things. I mean, you try not getting a prejudice worked up about this particular TV movie when I tell you it stars Kirk Cameron as a guy who can read dogs' minds. See? Not so easy to keep an open mind, is it?

The movie manages to be not quite as bad as I feared. It's amiable and rather sweetly dumb in the way that a not-so-bright pet can ingratiatingly cause a bit of a mess that takes no time at all to clean up. Filmed when Cameron was only a few years removed from his popular family sitcom Growing Pains and a few years before he waded into far-right Bible-thumping waters and emerged full loon, this movie is harmless kiddie stuff, the kind of thing that might've been a cheapie Disney B-picture back in the days that would still be a viable option. I mean, have you seen 1967's Monkeys, Go Home? Strange how things change, huh?

You can see I'm dancing around the main subject. This isn't because the movie's particularly awful. It's not. It would be easier to approach head-on if it were. I'm writing my way around it because its biggest failure is not clearing the basic low bar of any fiction: the question of why we should care. It’s clear that veteran TV director Paul Schneider and screenwriter David Covell assumed our answer would be: because it’s on. I'm not even talking the suspension of disbelief. When the movie opens – to the tune of a faux-Randy Newman singing a "You've Got a Friend in Me" knock-off – we get a montage of newspaper clippings that tells us Cameron's character was some kind of kid celebrity for his ability to commune with canine minds. Now, as an adult, he markets himself as a dog therapist, but we quickly learn that it's an act. He's a con man. But could he ever talk to dogs? Apparently it wasn’t always a con. When an eccentric rich man (Hansford Rowe) brings in his Lucky, the gift comes back. Fine. I can buy that. But I haven’t yet found a reason to care.

Why we have to have the is-he-or-isn't-he-a-fraud whiplash in these opening minutes is beyond me. But it’s what forces a change in Cameron's life, since his presumed fraudulent business is shut down coincidentally on the same day Lucky's owner suddenly dies. Yes, this movie moves fast, casting off characters and plot developments almost as quickly as it can introduce them. It's a whole lot of set-up for strained silliness to follow. You see, the rich man, on the basis of his sole dog-whisperer appointment, used his will to legally ensconce Cameron as the dog's trustee and translator, a job title in much need of filling, what with leaving all his wealth and assets to the dog.

The plot of the film follows Cameron trying to help the dog by listening so intently that he finds himself compelled to do very dog-like things. A scene in which he and the dog chew up all the couch cushions together typifies what goes on here. He's not so much communicating with the dog; he's possessed. That's what it looks like to the deceased rich man's scheming relatives (Taylor Negron, Christine Healy, and, Q himself, John de Lancie), who are entirely unsympathetic as they engage in tame slapstick to get their hands on the estate. The very thing that would allow them to claim the riches - Cameron's apparent insanity, what with the belief that he can hear Lucky's thoughts and all – is also the very thing that will legally allow the proper execution of the estate. It's a largely theoretically funny construct that's a sort of kiddie Catch-22.

But who cares where the money ends up? The climax of the film is an endless dumb courtroom scene that has no tension. Despite Cameron's likable enough performance, do we really want him to get the money? Sure, he can talk to dogs again, but he was an unrepentant con man for so long. The relatives are all cartoon-awful, but, hey, they do have a point. Why let this total stranger get their uncle's assets? The whole thing seems questionable to me, and needlessly overcomplicated in a way you'd not expect such lowest-common-denominator children's programming to be. In the end, who cares?

Up Next: Brink!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Just Business: CAPTAIN PHILLIPS


Exhausting and exhaustive, Captain Phillips is a process-oriented film of unrelenting tension. Detailing the true story of how, in 2009, a band of Somali pirates managed to board an American freighter in international waters off the coast of Africa and ended up holding the ship’s captain hostage for four days, the film’s approach finds the distance between us and them drawing small. The opening scenes are all about world economics, with two groups of men setting sail with very different, but ultimately convergent, goals. The freighter is loaded with cargo while Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) makes last minute checks, running down the corporate checklist. In a village in Somalia, a band of pirates are spurred to action by the local warlord, gathering boats and crew to go hunting for vulnerable targets in the ocean beyond their shores. They’re all in it for the money.

In the opening scene, the theme of global economic forces is made all too clear as clunky thematic exposition is spoken between Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener). The world is changed, he says, wheels are moving, forces beyond their control. By the time the captain of the pirates (Barkhad Abdi) comes face to face with Phillips, he tells him their piracy is “only business.” Late in the film, he explains his boss will expect money when they return. “We’ve all got bosses,” Phillips replies. The film splits cleanly in two, the opening an extended setup that brings the freighter and the pirates into contact and crisis, leaving the second half dedicated to cutting between the military rescue operation and the increasingly claustrophobic and desperate events on board as a heist becomes a hostage situation. It largely shifts thematic gesturing to off-hand remarks, driving forward with ticking reportorial momentum.

The film reflects its preoccupations with process and business in its simplicity. A tense reenactment of a story that was all over the news in recent memory, there’s a factual frisson to the way the film unfolds. The screenplay by Billy Ray is, a clunky first scene aside, relatively restricted to jargon, strategy, and jostling for power and advantage in an increasingly difficult scenario for all involved. Though it could easily become an overpowering triumphalist picture, with one of the most likeable movie stars on the planet terrorized by third-world criminals and eventually rescued by the firepower of the United States, there is a remarkably balanced approach that finds the terror of the situation in how inescapable it becomes. Everyone is simply doing the job they’ve been given, responding to variables according to the best of their professional knowledge and abilities.

Hanks does strong, nuanced work here as a man with a professional imperative to keep his cool to save his crew and cargo, as well as an inner strength, his will to survive driving him to keep all parties from becoming irreparably inflamed. He’s not a hero, merely a smart, capable man who keeps a level head. The final stretch of the film, when he’s pushed past the breaking point and enters a state of shock, is some of the rawest acting Hanks has done in years. Abdi, as the leader of Phillips’s Somali captors, is clearly orchestrating a criminal and inexcusable act, but his performance captures shades of doubt and pride that prevent his characterization from becoming abstract villainy. He’s a desperate man in desperate circumstances, finding it hard to control a situation he thought would be easy ransom as it spirals out of control and it becomes clearer that it’ll be hard to make it out. It’s almost sad when, late in the film when it’s clear to all involved he and his men will more likely be captured or killed than receive riches, he’s asked why he continues to hold Captain Phillips hostage and replies that he’s come too far to turn back.

Directed by Paul Greengrass, the film jitters with his trademark shaky-cam verisimilitude. With exceptional action films The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, he helped set the standard for chaos cinema, painting action as scrambling sequences of elaborate franticness, pushing blockbuster cinema towards a standard of abstract adrenaline that few filmmakers could match. Many would borrow the techniques, but few could copy the effects. His you-are-there docu-thriller immediacy did claustrophobic wonders for his dread-filled United 93, a real-life disaster picture that valorizes the passengers who died diverting a hijacked airliner on September 11, 2001. In Captain Phillips, Greengrass brings a similar sense of weight and tension, a sense of enclosure of space and situation, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd's widescreen framing refusing to open up. Even wide shots of ships at sea feel trapped, the weight of the suspense crushing down even there.

The film uses its sensations to simply recreate a recent event and it’s admirable how even-handed it manages to be. Even better, how the film refuses to give easy relief. The final minutes are extraordinary. The saving gunshots come fast, leaving the scene bloody and resolutely resisting celebration. Hanks’ final scene is not one of calm, but one of safety slowly quaking its way into a body still shaking with unbelievable stress. Greengrass leaves us with scenes much like those we’ve been watching the entire runtime, professionals simply doing what must be done. Tension may be released from this particular narrative, but the world goes on just as before.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

True Love Never Did Run Smooth: ROMEO AND JULIET


A Shakespeare adaptation has an inescapable feeling of repetition. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, provided those behind the scenes know how to make the text work for them. The main question becomes whether the new production works. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, there are two scenes that are absolutely crucial to making a worthy retelling. The first is the balcony scene, the moment where the audience needs to fully understand the attraction between the star-crossed lovers. The second crucial scene is the finale, the result of bits of coincidence that create the conditions for the tragic conclusion and must seem to flow naturally, reaching a poetic climax of heartbreak. In the newest big screen adaptation of the play, these scenes worked for me. My heart swelled when Romeo calls up to Juliet and they speak hushed infatuation. My eyes were a tad wet when the tale terminates in woe. With those moments locked down, the film can’t be all bad. The center’s too strong. That Shakespeare knew what he was doing.

This adaptation is a solid work that tells the well-known story with an earnest and heartfelt approach, tremblingly scored, capably performed. It was filmed on location in Italy with a cast dashing and gorgeous in period-piece appropriate clothing, speaking in Masterpiece Theater accents. The immortal narrative of two households, both alike in dignity, where ancient grudge leads to civil blood making civil hands unclean, has its inherent interest and power intact. Julian Fellowes, screenwriter of Gosford Park and creator of Downton Abbey, wrote the script, which stays true to the tone and shape of Shakespeare’s original play. It is not, however, an adaptation of total fealty to the Bard’s text. It’s not simply a matter of abridgment or subtly shifted emphasis. Some scenes are invented; lines are reworked and reworded. It’s distinctly Romeo and Juliet, but shifted ever so slightly away from the language on the page.

But that makes it sound like a calamity, a gross modernization, and it’s not that. Much of the original text’s most famous passages – “Wherefore art thou?” – remain nearly verbatim, while the rest of the film proceeds with not disastrously rewritten lines that remain true to the essence of the play. And, though Fellowes is talented, he is not Shakespeare. Still, the new dialogue clangs not to these ears, even if it’s not exactly at the same level. The original narrative is so strong, not to mention unscathed, and the production so dedicated to the feeling and tone of the text that it moves with a resonance that rings true to the play’s spirit, if not always its linguistic specifics. The cast finds the dialogue easily tripping off their tongues, smoothly and with great feeling.

In the leads are Douglas Booth, new to me, and Hailee Steinfeld, the remarkable young woman who stole the show in the Coen brothers’ True Grit. They make a very pretty Romeo and Juliet, she with her youthful open countenance and emotive eyes, he with prominent cheekbones and male-model smolder. But they don’t only look the part. There’s a fresh-faced adolescent impulsive obsession in their romance, a quivering discovery that vibrates on a tastefully melodramatic level. We don’t have to believe it is True Love, only that Romeo and Juliet think it is. As Taylor Swift once sang, “When you’re fifteen and somebody tells you they love you, you’re going to believe them.”

Filling out the supporting cast are plenty of character actors doing good work with classic roles, from Homeland’s Damian Lewis as Lord Capulet to Let Me In’s Kodi Smit-McPhee as Benvolio, frequent Mike Leigh collaborator Lesley Manville as Nurse, and Stellan Skarsgård as the Prince of Verona. Best of all is Paul Giamatti’s Friar Laurence, who in this telling takes on a terrific twinkle in his eye, is tickled by his plan to help wed, and later reunite, the lovers, and is fantastically distraught when it all goes wrong. As the characters go through the paces, the movie rushes along, finding sometimes-awkward transitions. A cut from a covert wedding to Ed Westwick’s Tybalt scowling while practicing his sword skills is a tad laughable. But in general, the film does the play justice.

The cinematography by David Tattersall is handsome; the costumes are appealing. It’s not exactly a lavish production – a bush in the balcony scene is a bit of conspicuous fakery – but it’s largely nicely done. Director Carlo Carlei, a relative unknown here in the States having worked mainly in Italian TV, is the least interesting aspect of the film. He’s no George Cukor or Franco Zeffirelli or Baz Luhrmann, far better directors who brought (wildly dissimilar) cinematic styles to their versions of Romeo and Juliet. For better and worse, Carlei brings only the stuffy, undistracted gloss that you’d find in any blandly proficient prestige project. The best that can be said is that he stays out of the way. This is Fellowes’ project through and through, and even he plays second fiddle to Shakespeare. This is Romeo and Juliet and all that implies. My heart swelled. My eyes got wet. Because the film gets the most important aspects right, it works.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Killer Toy Stories: CURSE OF CHUCKY


When Chucky, a chirpy red-haired doll possessed by the dead soul of a cold-blooded killer, was introduced in the 1988 horror film Child’s Play, I’ll bet no one would’ve guessed he’d be around for at least 25 years, let alone spawn a franchise that would last six films. Yet here we are. That first film is surprisingly entertaining and holds up well. The doll scampers about in a darkly funny, genuinely scary movie that builds up to one of the greatest pre-kill one-liners of the 80s, or any decade for that matter. (Having it spoken by a darling little kid, his hand defiantly holding the match that’ll hopefully light the killing flame, is a definite plus.) With clear inspiration from the plethora of slasher pictures floating around at the time, the movie manages to make Chucky scary in two ways. First, there’s the creeping terror of a supposedly inanimate object that slips away when your back is turned. Secondly, there’s the placid, safe, kid-friendly plastic face that suddenly screws itself into a wrinkled grimace as the killer’s personality bursts through, the cold rubbery lips spouting hurtful, violent, vulgar intensity with a chilling vocal performance by Brad Dourif.

The movies that followed tried to duplicate the mix of scarily silly kills, largely missing what made Child’s Play such an unexpected blast. The franchise’s next best idea came when Chucky got a girlfriend, Tiffany, an equally psychotic person played by Jennifer Tilly who, you guessed it, ended up stuck in a doll body of her own. Now they’re homicidal partners in what becomes the only killer doll romance that I can think of. Like so many 80s slasher villains, Chucky started out pure evil and ended up somewhere closer to the role of protagonist, creating the kind of icky cognitive dissonance wherein an audience starts to root for the killer simply because he’s our only recurring character, the most charismatic known quantity on screen, and the only reason the plot moves at all.

It wasn’t until 2004’s Seed of Chucky, the fifth in the series, that a notable movie bubbled up out of the formula. It’s a movie that’s difficult to recommend, but hard to ignore, busting down every known category and sitting confidently in several boxes at once. To call the movie outside the box is to assume writer-director Don Mancini (making his directorial debut after having written the entire franchise to date) is aware that there is a box at all. I have admiration for Seed, which finds Chucky and Tiffany in Hollywood and devotes most of the runtime to the dolls terrorizing Jennifer Tilly (playing herself as well as voicing Tiffany). It’s a slasher movie, a showbiz satire, and a fearlessly tasteless gross-out comedy. Besides, any movie that steers into territory so bonkers and meta while still finding time for a subplot involving kinky cult filmmaker John Waters playing an amused paparazzo can’t be all bad.

Now, nearly a decade later, Don Mancini is back wearing the writer-director’s hats for Curse of Chucky. The sixth in the Child’s Play series, and the first to go direct to video, Curse begins when a woman (Chantal Quesnelle) and her twenty-something wheelchair-bound daughter (Fiona Dourif) receive a mysterious package in the mail. It’s a Chucky doll, something vaguely remembered from the 80s. Neither of them ordered it, but there’s no time to ponder the mystery. The mother falls from their second floor balcony and dies that very night. In the wake of this tragedy, the girl’s older sister (Danielle Bisutti), with husband (Brennan Elliott), daughter (Summer H. Howell), and nanny (Maitland McConnell) in tow, show up at the house, marking time before the funeral mourning, reconnecting, and arguing about what to do next. Their minds are so otherwise taxed, there’s scarcely time to wonder why that Chucky doll keeps going missing and turning up in the strangest spots.

The movie is stuck in a limited space, barely stepping foot outside the house for the duration. We’re with a small number of characters over a short period of time, the stakes escalating slowly but surely over a trim runtime. That’s a sign of the budget and DTV status for sure, but Mancini is resourceful, getting great shadows and ominous creaks out of the big old house in the country. It’s the scariest of the series since the first one, effectively building up jumps and kills, grabbing a few genuine chills along the way. It turns out there are still some good scares left in Chucky. For once, he’s used sparingly, although as the plot goes on he gets chattier and Mancini can’t help but pull in the franchise’s laborious narrative history. It’s better than your average fan service, though. Cleverly thought through, Curse is respectful of what’s come before. As one with affection for the series, I found it pleasing enough. I doubt the movie’s winning over any new converts, but it’s a solid treat, rewarding long-held interest in the material.

Fiona Dourif makes a most sympathetic protagonist, while her father, returning once again as the voice of Chucky, slips easily into the little creep’s brusquely singsong tones. Mancini stages a couple clever switcheroos of scripting, a few fun sequences – an early highlight is a sort of Russian roulette chili dinner, the audience aware that one bowl has been spiked with poison, but unaware who has received it – and some creative gore. By the end I was growing a little tired of the sometimes-predictable horror hack and slash, but it’s ultimately diverting enough. It’s all a bit of a throwback, less exploitative than you’d think (for good and ill, come to think of it) and easily the least overtly goofy (again, for good and ill) the series has been in quite some time. It’s a fitting entry in this long running series and a fine mid-October surprise.

Note: For some reason, this October sees only one wide release horror film. Why Curse of Chucky didn’t get the bump to theatrical release, I don’t know. It’s bankrolled by a major studio – Universal – and seems modestly budgeted without appearing cheap. Surely it would’ve been worth the chance. 
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