Saturday, November 26, 2011

REVIEW: The Machinist (2004)

Director: Brad Anderson
Starring: Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón

Christian Bale’s 2004 film is one most often noted for the actor’s choice to go so far into character, in order to make the movie the way the director envisioned, that he lost a ton of weight and looked like an anorexic ghoul for the whole thing. He really went all out, and I think that that’s worthy of respect. He’s devoted to his job. Everyone’s got what they’re good at, and all you have in life is the ability to do it and be respected for it by your peers – I think Bale is more than worthy of that respect.

But the film is notable for more than that, such as the directing of horror/thriller master Brad Anderson, who also directed the sublime Session 9 4 years prior. Anderson seems to be channeling Jacob’s Ladder with this, as there are a lot of similarities, but you know what? I welcome it. Jacob’s Ladder is an excellent film, and while at first The Machinist might look like a cheap knock-off, it uses the influences – psychological horror, the surreality, the fact that you never know what’s real – to comment on very real things and talk about an issue just like the original film did a decade prior. This is a film about a man racked with guilt. He cannot sleep and has been losing weight ever since his terrible ordeal (which I won’t spoil here). Far from a shallow brain exercise, this is an emotional and disturbing picture of a man on the edge of himself, starting to crumble.

It builds through discordant, jarring psychological twists even from the beginning, with Bale’s character Trevor immediately thrust into a host of mind bending situations. He meets a man named Ivan who claims to work for his company, but how come no one else has ever heard of him? He finds strange post-it notes on his refrigerator, on his walls. He forms relationships with two women, a prostitute (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a waitress at an airport diner (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), both of which become entangled in the film’s morass of plot.

His personality becomes revealed to us through the subtle things. In the beginning of the film he costs a co-worker at his factory an arm when he becomes distracted and accidentally turns on a machine at the wrong time, and that’s the catalyst for the rest of the film’s decadent insanity. His physical and mental decay are linked together through his tragedy, his terrible mistake. Everything slowly starts to fall apart from his jobs to his relationships.

A lot of these kinds of movies turn out as shallow and vapid intellectual exercises with little real human depth, but Anderson’s directing lets the depth shine through all the macabre creepiness and seedy atmosphere. The Machinist is a movie about a long spiral of degradation and guilt, and it’s made relatable by the fact that this kind of thing happens in real life, if not quite to the same extreme extent. The human mind can only live with so much guilt until it breaks.

The power of the film lies in Bale’s performance and the unfurling but clear realization of exactly what happened to make him the way he is. We have to know, and although the film is obscure and odd from its onset, it takes no shame in clearing the clouds by the end, and yet without making the viewer feel stupid. Once we know, the film stops being a guessing game of ‘what’s real, what’s in his head’ and more of a statement on the human conscience and what we have to do to make things right, to achieve even the most base level of peace. Powerful, sad and unnerving, mostly for how long it took for Bale's character to do the right thing.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

REVIEW: It's Kind of a Funny Story (2011)

Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Starring: Keir Gilchrist, Emma Roberts, Zach Gilafianakis

I remember seeing the trailer for this movie almost a year ago and thinking it looked good, so I was delighted to find that the film itself was about as enjoyable as I’d hoped. It’s Kind of a Funny Story, despite the cumbersome and indie-esque name, is a tight and well written film, and while it could have easily have fallen into the cracks of mediocre trashy modern rom-coms, it avoided the pitfalls by delivering a unique premise and some good, heartwarming scenarios that kept me interested. Of course, it also helped that I needed this kind of thing for my own catharsis…but this isn’t a blog about my personal feelings, it’s a blog about reviewing movies. Let’s dig in.

The main character is Craig (Keir Gilchrist), a 16 year old pressured on all sides who feels like he wants to kill himself. He checks himself into a mental hospital and makes friends with a troubled but caring older man named Bobby, played by Zack Gilafianakis. He also starts talking to a girl named Noelle (Emma Roberts), who is pretty much everything he could ask for in a girl – funny, open minded and a free thinker. There are other complications along the road, unfolding into the movie’s lotus-like web of problems, but the movie manages them all deftly, and I was never bored. I liked how well it managed every little subplot.

This is a good film by way of expert storytelling and the lighthearted bent it has to keep everything peppy and upbeat – although there are a few moments where things get dire, it’s never done too melodramatic or played like it’s less of a big deal than it is. Balance is the key word. Everything in this movie is balanced out to a nice, clever and level-headed crest that I rode pretty easily. There are funny parts, some romantic parts that come out pretty energetic and sensual actually and some serious and dramatic parts, all given their proper dues.

Acting is quite good, with Gilafianakis delivering a performance far greater than his goofy slapstick on The Hangover. He captivates in every scene, and goes from a deadpan, snarky monotone to a raging howl whenever he wants. I have a lot more respect for him after this. Emma Roberts is really good too, even though the script kind of sells her short with the fact that she doesn’t get many big scenes at all – but the ones she does get, she’s always fun to watch. And quite pretty. Gilchrist is a solid protagonist, and although he doesn’t really stand out, he does what needs to be done.

Mostly this is a film about getting help in tough situations and finding your place in the world. It’s aimed at a younger audience, sure, but it’s still relatable in general. The theme is a little generic – don’t buckle to the pressures of your parents and your peers and you’ll eventually get a hot chick and make friends with an amiable older comedian – but it’s air-tight, and delivered with conviction.

I will say the one flaw with this is that it was a bit short. What keeps It’s Kind of a Funny Story from becoming a real masterpiece is the fact that it doesn’t really do much outside of the conventions – it doesn’t go over and beyond our expectations like Whip It did, for instance. But it works with those conventions and creates a fun and likable film anyway, and remains far more engaging than tripe like Forgetting Sarah Marshall or Juno, if I have to point any fingers. It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a good film, honest and full of heart, and if you’re not completely stone-hearted, you’d do well to check it out. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

REVIEW: The Uninvited (2009)

Well now that we’re done with the Dracula movies, we can move onto…something even less likable and coherent.

Director: The Guard Brothers
Starring: Emily Browning, Arielle Kebbel, Elizabeth Banks

First, a little bit of history. The Uninvited is a remake of a Korean film called A Tale of Two Sisters, about a girl who returns home after an extended stay in a mental hospital following her mother’s death. She gets paranoid and sees things only to wind up at a shocking twist ending. It wasn’t anything great, but it was sure as hell better than this haphazard, half-assed cobble of regurgitated clichés, horrible writing and unbelievable characters. Someone get the hose ready for this review. You might need to use it on me.

Our film starts off with a girl named Anna at a party making out with some guy when suddenly she decides she doesn’t want to. Due to the rather bland narration, we see it’s actually her recounting a dream she had to her psychiatrist. In the dream she comes across a garbage bag with a dead body in it that tells her not to go home. Thinking dead bodies talking are passé, she decides not to listen, and goes home anyway. Apparently her mom is sick in bed or something, and so she picks up a watering can, goes to leave and then watches the boating house her mom is staying in explode randomly. I guess that boating house was copyright ACME corporation 2009…out of work in cartoons, they turn now to making horrendous psychological horror movies. It’s a dark time for them.

That doesn't even look like it would make the cover of a Goosebumps book. It's more like 'Hallmark card trying to be SUPER SCARY for Halloween this year, but not too much, cause there's kids that buy these!'

The psychiatrist apparently decides this crazy dream means that Anna is A-OK to go home now! Her dad picks her up and takes her back home, where we’re introduced to the stepmother Rachel. Rachel is such a good person that she delivers lines like this one: “You look so skinny! Maybe I should go spend some time in the mental hospital too!” Yeah, real “funny.” About as “funny” as terminal cancer, in fact.

Then we get her sister Alex, who seems nice at first and just wants to talk about old times. That is until Anna asks when Rachel moved in with their dad, and then she turns into a moody, self-pitying, rude little whiner and stomps off angrily. Great character writing! Real people totally just change moods at the drop of a hat and no reason at all for doing so! And seriously, why didn’t Alex have to go to the mental hospital too? That’s pretty silly.

Whine whine whine cry cry cry...boring AND stupid!

After that we meet Matt, or rather, Generic White Boyfriend with No Personality. He tells Anna that he really knows what happened that night her mom died, only he gets stopped by Rachel, who tells him to leave. She suddenly acts all evil and secretive now for absolutely no reason at all and removes all doubt that she has something to do with whatever it was that happened – being that the writers couldn’t think of any other way to work suspicion into the story, they just threw all subtlety to the wind and said, ‘screw it! Just make her act all evil at random! Not disjointed or idiotic at all!’ Well I find that distasteful!

Pretty much after this the movie takes a huge nosedive into complete WTF territory as nothing makes any sense and the characters are reduced to devices to make the plot move forward. Writing so bad it makes your average internet fan fiction look good, and acting equal to that which you’d find on any given English dub of a German movie, oh my! Let’s go over some of the highlights:

There’s one part where Matt tells Anna to meet her at the Rock at 11 PM that night. She and Alex go up there and the way it’s shot makes it look like they wait for about a second before leaving, because right after they stop walking, the shot ends and goes to them in their room later. Geez. Impatient. Or terrible directing; either one fits.

But it’s OK, because Matt shows up in Anna’s room and tells her he fell off the rock and hit his back or something. So…get him to a hospital? Then he says he can’t feel his back, so of course the logical thing to do is start making out, right? Getting him to a hospital would be silly. Also, if he just fell off the rock, why didn’t he just climb back up and call to them for help? God, how many questions can a two minute scene like this raise? What are they doing?

Ha ha Anna, you made out with a dead guy! You so cool.

Whoops, turns out he’s a ghost anyway and his body is found the next day! This tragic event is so heartbreaking that they spend no time grieving for him and instead start conspiring to uncover Rachel as the killer. They go online and look up some random nonsense that they somehow twist around to mean that she isn’t who she says she is. Apparently there’s no record at all of her being a registered nurse. So what’s the logical thing to do? Apparently for Anna it’s to confront Rachel in her room. But Anna doesn’t just do it standing in the doorway, oh no. She actually SITS DOWN and LETS RACHEL CORNER HER before saying anything! That’s…that’s so stupid I can’t even articulate how stupid it is! YOU’RE PLAYING INTO THE ENEMY’S HANDS. SHE HAS YOU RIGHT WHERE SHE WANTS YOU. How dumb are you???

Dumb dumb dumb dumb, you're so dumb...

So yeah, after that Rachel continues to act completely two-faced and gives us no reason to doubt that she is indeed the murderer. There’s this whole scene in the kitchen where she’s preparing a turkey roast and stabbing it suggestively with sharp knives, and a bunch of silly jump scare hallucinations under the sink and…I don’t know. Just slap ‘GENERIC MODERN HORROR MOVIE SCENE #2751’ overtop a black screen and you’d have a similar effect.

You know, horror movie ghosts are stupid. They constantly jump out menacingly at the protagonist to try and get her attention to go do something to avenge them, but really when you think about it, why don't they just tell them calmly? Things would get done much faster that way.

And oh no, the dad won’t listen to his own daughters and dismisses everything they say without even thinking about it? Oh what a great character type; not like we haven’t seen this in a hundred other movies! And it’s not at all unrealistic and retarded, either…

So their dad leaves, leaving both girls with just Rachel to be rude to them and act like a creepy, evil serial killer. She snaps at them to wear something nice to Matt’s funeral…implying that they would just go in their pajamas otherwise? I don’t know. But it doesn’t stop Anna from just wandering off in the middle of the service to chase more hallucination ghosts! It’s not like Matt was her boyfriend or anything, right? Oh wait, he was. And this whole thing just got even dumber. I don’t even care that she went off to find an important plot element – if your movie can’t move a scene forward without making your characters look like insensitive jackasses, YOU NEED TO QUIT FILMMAKING. NOW.

The truest and most loyal girlfriend EVER, people!

So Alex and Anna go online again and I guess Google is great for finding out convenient murder histories, because they find the answers in like 2 seconds! Rachel is Mildred Kemp, a nanny who murdered a whole family just to win a father’s affections. It’s one thing if she had some kind of elaborate plan to make it look like an accident, but according to the movie she SEDATED AND STABBED THE KIDS SEVERAL TIMES. How was that supposed to work? Was the father just supposed to go “Oh, my kids went missing and are probably dead? LET’S HOOK UP AND GET MARRIED! WOOHOO!” Y’know, movie, using ‘crazy’ as an excuse for every plot-hole and vague, un-thought-out aspect of your story you have…isn’t exactly smart writing.

Also, you wanna know how the girls KNOW FOR SURE that Rachel is Mildred Kemp? They saw a picture of the wife of this dead family with a similar necklace to the one Rachel has. Yeah. Because lord knows a generic looking pearl necklace couldn’t possibly be obtained by any other means than murdering a woman and taking them from her, right? I’m glad you make so much sense, The Uninvited. Next you’ll be telling me everyone who has the same favorite cereal as the Zodiac Killer could have been him. Maybe David Fincher should make a movie about that. Maybe he should learn from this movie’s groundbreaking intellect, right?

So it can’t get worse than that, right? Oh please, of course it can. Rachel confronts the girls and almost drugs Anna, but she gets away. Alex however, has already been drugged, so Anna does the logical thing and just leaves her in the house with a crazy murderer. Oh what a great bond these sisters have. She goes and finds the sheriff, who seems to believe her, and leaves the room for a moment. This gives Anna ample time to…

Oh, is it naptime? I didn't know the actors were falling asleep during this crap-fest too!

…FALL ASLEEP? Oh yeah, I mean you’re only on the run from a crazed murderer with your sister left defenseless with her. Perfect time to take a nap! I bet sleep came as easy as pie to her!

She wakes up and sees her mother, but then it turns out to be Rachel instead, who sedates her and carries her back to the house. At the house she puts Anna on a bed, strips her to her underwear and puts her in a short white dress. I’d say this scene had a point, and that I knew what it was going for, but really I have no idea. You’d have just about as logical a scene if you switched to a scene of a monkey bathing a cat.

Then she passes out, wakes up later and finds a trail of blood and gore leading to a dumpster, where it turns out Rachel has been murdered. Alex appears covered in blood and holding a knife. The car pulls up just in time for this Kodak moment, and we get the crowning moment of the film’s awfulness as Anna tries to convince her father, with the two of them standing there covered in blood and holding a knife, that Rachel was bad and that they did the right thing. Because, you know, the fact that they murdered his fiancée would be such a powerful motivator for him to listen to them. You know, I’m actually starting to side with the dad when he just ignores everything his daughters tell him. It seems like he had no reason to listen to them after all.

"Yes, listen to us, because we're so credible and believable right now!"

The movie pretty much ends with the SHOCKING TWIST that Alex is dead, and that Anna has been killing everyone all along. She’s put back in the mental hospital and it’s revealed that Rachel got a name change NOT because she was a crazy serial killer on the run, but because she had an abusive boyfriend once – so glad the father could have cleared up that confusion at any time and saved everyone, but didn’t do so!

Also it’s revealed that the real Mildred Kemp is actually right across the room from Anna at the mental hospital…which means this hospital keeps mass murderers and traumatized, harmless teens in the same wing of the building. Think about that one for a second. And on that one last note of insane, brainless attempts at plot-writing, the movie is over.

I mean it; this despicable crap is up there with American Psycho II and Blackout for movies where literally every single scene had something going wrong, whether it was the godawful abortion of the writing or the painful cliché of the jump scares. There’s nothing good about it, at all. It’s one of those movies like Memento, The Machinist, Jacob’s Ladder or the original Tale of Two Sisters where everything makes sense at the end, and I can get behind that general idea, but The Uninvited just botches it up big time. Just because you have a twist ending explaining everything doesn’t mean the rest of your movie can be totally illogical, incomprehensible gibberish. There should still be, you know, SOME KIND OF SENSE BEING MADE.

It’s hard to even describe how much I hate this movie. I mean…it’s so bad! Who came up with this? I can’t even find information on the directors, who go only by the name ‘The Guard Brothers.’ If you’re that ashamed of your movie that you can’t even reveal your name, what’s the point? This isn’t some kind of Islamic terrorist state where you get killed for making movies like this – although I certainly wish it was now. The only name I can find info for on Wikipedia is Doug Miro, who along with one of the other writers, helped out with The Sorceror’s Apprentice the very next year. These men are dangerous to the film industry! Someone make them stop!