The ABCs of Death


You really don't want to know what F stands for.

You really don’t want to know what F stands for.

(2012) Horror Anthology (Magnet) Ingrid Bolsø Berdal (voice), Erik Aude, Kyra Zagorsky, Ivan Gonzalez, Dallas Malloy, Sarah Bonrepaux, Lee Hardcastle, Fraser Corbett, Peter Pedrero, Darenzia, Arisa Nakamura, Hiroko Yashiki, Lucy Clements, Match, Yuri Murata, Je$$ica, Harold Torres, Mattias Oviedo, Alejandra Urdlain, Takashi Nishina, Chems Dahmani, Vanja Lazin. Directed by a bunch of people.  

Horror movies are undergoing a quiet renaissance with an underground that is active and imaginative. While many of these movies aren’t getting theatrical releases, with the advent of YouTube, VOD and other means of putting movies out there, we’re seeing some really good stuff not just here in America but from all over the world.

Tim League, founder of Fantastic Fest, America’s premier genre film festival, wants these talents to see the light of day. Along with co-producer Ant Timpson (a Kiwi whose Incredibly Strange Film Festival is one of the world’s most prestigious) he came up with a concept – assign 26 of the world’s most exciting up-and-coming horror film directors a letter of the alphabet and have them make a short film relating a word starting with that letter to death and then with all 26 shown as a single film.

Like all anthologies, the quality varies and with this many shorts (most of which last less than 5 minutes) there is a wide variety of styles and content. Some are more comic than horrific, some taking on a combination of the two. Many are attempts to push the boundaries, not only of gore but of good taste. Some are intriguing, some are innovative, some are repulsive and some are mediocre. Most people will find at least one of the shorts to be outstanding.

There were some that were just plain horrific in an old-fashioned sense –  A is for Apocalypse is, for example, from Nacho Vigolando (of Timecrimes and Extraterrestrial) in which a savage murder is turned into an act of mercy. One of my favorites was T is for Toilet in which an overly skittish young man who has an irrational fear of toilets (a fear which turned out to be justified) done in Claymation – the director, Lee Hardcastle, actually won the 26th spot on the roster in a contest.

Xavier Gens, the French director who helmed The Divide has one of the more straightforward shorts in the bunch.  In X is for XXL, a tormented overweight French woman decides to take matters into her own hands and reinvent herself to be more in line with the aesthetic of beauty that French models ascribe to. Take from that what you will.

There is also much humor. J is for Jidai-Geki (Samurai Film) from Japanese director Yudai Yamaguchi has a samurai about to deliver the coup de grace for a samurai committing hara-kiri unable to keep a straight face because of the faces his charge is making. Q is for Quack has Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way to Die) and Simon Barrett commiserating over the disrespect afforded them by being assigned the letter Q and at their billing  in the credits. They concoct a brilliant way to make their segment stand out – then screw it up about as badly as it can be.

There are some surreal segments such as O is for Orgasm and W is for WTF. There is the animated K is for Klutz and the Russ Meyers tribute S is for Speed. I could go on and on but I don’t think it necessary to go over all 26 entries. You get the drift.

There’s enough good stuff to outweigh the bad by a pretty decent margin, so I can recommend this for most horror fans and even those mainstream moviegoers who don’t mind having their boundaries pushed a bit. This isn’t for the faint of heart, the squeamish or the easily offended. Who it is for are those who are looking for something a bit out of the norm and have an open mind about movies. I recommend bringing along someone with a big booming belly laugh. There was a guy like that at my screening of the film and it helps immensely.

REASONS TO GO: Some big laughs and some big scares. Pushes some boundaries and offers examples of what’s going on in the horror underground around the world.

REASONS TO STAY: Uneven – some of the segments are less successful than others. Too much toilet humor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Crude humor, graphic nudity and gore, foul language, violence, disturbing images and themes, drug use and a partridge in a pear tree.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ant Timpson and Tim Teague, producers of the film, are best known for running the Incredibly Strange Film Festival and Fantastic Fest respectively; Teague is also CEO of the Alamo Drafthouse chain of theaters.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100; critics really didn’t get on board for this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: V/H/S

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: I Declare War

Lovely Molly


Lovely Molly

Molly may be lovely but she’s also scary as Hell.

(2012) Psychological Horror (Image) Gretchen Lodge, Johnny Lewis, Alexandra Holden, Ken Arnold, Shane Tunney, Tony Ellis, Katie Foster, Lauren Lakis, Daniel Ross, Brandon Thane Wilson, Dan Franko, Todd Ryan Jones, Tara Garwood. Directed by Eduardo Sanchez

 

Going back home is usually considered a bit of a warm fuzzy; all of our glowing childhood memories of safety and security packed with the joy of childhood. Of course, if your childhood as awful filled with sexual abuse and drug use, going back home carries a whole different connotation.

Molly (Lodge) is a new bride, having married her sweetheart Tim (Lewis). She works as a janitor in a local mall while he drives a truck for a living and is gone for long stretches at a time. The new couple has moved into Molly’s childhood home, which she inherited after her  father passed away. Her sister Hannah (“Franklin and Bash” regular Holden) has serious misgivings about this since in that home Molly was repeatedly molested by her father, which sent her into a downward spiral of drug abuse and psychosis from which she’s only recently recovered.

At first things are lovely and idyllic in the bucolic Maryland countryside house that goes back to the Colonial era. Then, Tim gets called away for a long haul just before Molly’s birthday. She begins to hear noises in the night – terrifying footsteps, and doors slamming on their own accord. She hears voices, male voices whispering unintelligibly in the night. Molly carries around a digital video camera around with her but can’t seem to get more on film than things that can be explained away.

She starts to see shadowy but hideous demonic forms out of the corner of her eye. The noises and unexplained phenomena are beginning to get more intense and threatening. She talks to a pastor (Arnold) about her fears but he can’t really help her – and she can’t afford health care in order to see a therapist or psychiatrist.

Tim has been supportive but even he is wondering what’s going on with his bride. Is she having some kind of psychotic break, or perhaps relapsing into drug use again? Or is the truth that she is legitimately being haunted, perhaps by the ghost of her father – or something more insidious, sinister and ancient?

Sanchez, whose first movie was the legendary Blair Witch Project, has made a career out of creating atmospheric horror films in which the audience is never 100% positive about what they’re seeing. One of the things I liked most about this film – and in fact of all of Sanchez’ films – is that he casts doubt on the evidence of your senses. Is that really ghostly whispers or the minds of the protagonists playing tricks on them?

It helps having an unknown actress throwing down a powerful performance in the lead. Gretchen Lodge doesn’t have a lot of on-screen experience but she makes up for it with a nuanced performance that captures her fragile psyche as well as her dangerous and unpredictable aspect. If Molly isn’t genuinely beset by supernatural forces then she is surely psychotic and maybe even schizophrenic. That you cannot be certain which is both a tribute to the writers and to Lodge herself.

The problems here are also in the writing; there are some logical leaps of faith that are a little bit too much to ask of the audience, particularly when it comes to how other characters react to Molly. For example, if Molly were truly having so many problems in the house, why not go stay with her sister who evidently lives close enough by to make regular visits? Also, there’s a sense that some of the elements have been seen before, like the horny pastor. That little subplot doesn’t really work and could easily have been excised from the film to the movie’s benefit.

Da Queen didn’t like this movie at all when we saw it at the Florida Film Festival, but then again these are the types of movies she really doesn’t care for at all so that must be taken with a grain of salt. There are a good deal of things that work here, particularly in regards to keeping the audience guessing about Molly’s veracity. That makes this the kind of movie that is a candidate for repeated viewings as audiences will want to see it again with a different point of view in mind. This isn’t a remarkable film – it’s too cliché for that – but it is genuinely spooky and innovative in its own way. If Sanchez could have tightened up a few things here and there he’d have made a genuine classic.

REASONS TO GO: Creepiness factor through the roof. Lodge performs well in a demanding role.

REASONS TO STAY: Lapses in logic. A bit too vague in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic violence and sexuality, some disturbing images, nudity, drug use and let’s throw in some bad language for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gretchen Lodge’s first feature film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.The reviews are decidedly mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silent House

COLONIAL LOVERS: The home in the film is an actual Colonial dwelling in Maryland not far from where The Blair Witch Project was shot.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Dark Shadows

Mother and Child


Mother and Child

Nobody beats Samuel L. Jackson in a staredown. Nobody.

(2009) Drama (Sony Classics) Naomi Watts, Annette Benning, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Jimmy Smits, David Morse, Marc Blucas, Shareeka Epps, Lisa Gay Hamilton, S. Epetha Merkerson, David Ramsey, Eileen Ryan, Cherry Jones, Amy Brenneman, Tatyana Ali, Elizabeth Pena. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia

 

Motherhood has a unique place in the female psyche. It may well be the driving force; the urge to procreate and then care and nurture for that child. Sometimes it’s not always possible for those instincts to be indulged the way you want to.

Karen (Benning) is an emotionally brittle caregiver in every sense of the word – by day she works as a physical therapist, by night she returns home to care for her elderly mother (Ryan). Karen is not the easiest person to get along with; she tends to keep people at arm’s length. She’d had a baby when she was 14 and was forced to give her up for adoption. That has haunted Karen’s entire life; she won’t let anyone in, not even sweet-natured co-worker Paco (Smits), although his patience seems to be limitless.

Elizabeth (Watts) is a driven attorney who never seems satisfied with anything in life. She is hard, occasionally crude and tends to keep people at arm’s length. She has started work in a new firm, and in order to cement her position – and possibly even improve it – she has initiated an affair with her boss, Paul (Jackson). It is a relationship all about sex, power and ambition. Elizabeth was adopted and seems to have no desire at all to find out who her birth mother is (although I’m sure you can guess). However, her world turns upside down when she discovers she’s pregnant.

Lucy (Washington) is unable to have children. She and her husband Joseph (Ramsey) have elected to adopt and are looking for a baby to call their own. The agency that Lucy is going through, whose representative is Sister Joanne (Jones), sends along several expectant mothers who are giving up their babies for adoption. Ray (Epps) seems to be a suitable candidate, but she is understandably picky about what kind of home her baby will be placed in and has enough attitude to choke an elephant.

All three of these women’s lives are entwined in ways that are both visible and invisible. Their stories may be told separately, but they are all a part of the same story, one that will not end as expected for all of them.

This is a bit different than most ensemble anthology dramas in that the story really is a single story although told from the viewpoints of three different characters. Much of the story is telegraphed – anyone who doesn’t figure out that Elizabeth is Karen’s biological daughter is probably not smarter than a fifth grader. However, it is saved by some pretty good performances.

Benning, who would get Oscar consideration for her performance in The Kids are All Right that year showed why she is as underrated an actress as there is in America. It is difficult at best to play an emotionally closed-off character and still make them sympathetic, but Benning does it. In some ways this was a tougher role than the one that got her all the acclaim that year but because the movie wasn’t nearly as good as the other one she probably didn’t get the scrutiny here.

Watts also has a similarly difficult job and while she doesn’t pull it off quite as successfully as Benning does nevertheless acquits herself well and shows why she is also a formidable actress given the right material. Sometimes she flies under the radar, mainly because her films aren’t always as buzz-worthy but time after time she delivers film-carrying performances and while she isn’t the household name she deserves to be, she is still well-respected in Hollywood as one of the top actresses working today and this movie illustrates why.

The ending smacks a little bit of movie of the week schmaltz and the story relies way too much on coincidence. However one has to give the filmmakers credit for putting together a movie that is female-centric and tackles the effects of adoption on the birth mother, the child given up for adoption and the person doing the adoption in a somewhat creative manner. While other critics liked the movie a little more than I did (and I can understand why, truly), the contrived nature of the plot held the film back from a better rating. Had the three stories been a little bit more independent of each other I think it would have made for a better overall film. Not all stories have to be wrapped up with a neat little bow.

WHY RENT THIS: A surprisingly potent examination of women and their maternal instincts. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending strives for grace and lyricism but falls short.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sex and nudity, along with a decent dose of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Naomi Watts was pregnant with her son Samuel during filming; when you see her baby moving in utero during one scene, that’s actually Samuel.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.0M on a $7M production budget; the movie wasn’t a financial success from a box office perspective.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Motherhood

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls

Headhunters (Hodejegerne)


Headhunters

Some CEOs are a little bit more psychotic than others.

(2011) Thriller (Magnolia) Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Synnove Macody Lund, Julie Olgaard, Kyrre Haugen Sydness, Reidar Sorensen, Nils Jorgen Kaalstad, Joachim Rafaelsen, Gunnar Skramstad Johnsen, Lars Skramstad Johnsen, Signe Tynning, Eivind Sander. Directed by Morten Tyldum

 

There is a big difference between a lifestyle and a life. Having a lifestyle is something subject to what we can afford; having a life is inevitable, although sometimes we lose sight of the latter when chasing the former.

Roger Brown (Hennie) should know that. He works as a corporate headhunter, placing out of work executives into new jobs that befit their experience and price value. He works in Oslo, and is married to Diana (Lund), a statuesque Nordic blonde art gallery owner whom he plies with expensive jewelry and an amazing house that is well beyond his means.

Roger supplements his income in rather a clever way. Through his interviewing of CEOs he manages to discover the type of art they have at home, then he sets up the CEO for an interview. While the client is at the interview, he breaks into their homes by having a confederate at the security company (apparently one company supplies all of the former CEOs in Norway with alarm systems) disable their alarm system, at which time he walks in, removes the painting and replaces it with a forgery. It doesn’t have to be a great forgery, just one good enough to fool them for a week or two, casting doubt as to when the actual crime occurred. It’s pretty smart but as Brown ruefully says in the voiceover, doing this gig long enough ends in one of two results; either you find a piece of work valuable to retire on, or you get caught.

Roger figures he might have found the former. A new client, the former head of a Dutch telecommunications company named Clas Greve (Coster-Waldau) might have in his position a Rubens that had gone unseen since the Second World War. Roger’s partner, the genial Ove (Sander) has some misgivings – he’d much rather spend the time with his Russian prostitute – but Roger eventually bullies him into picking up a forgery for the piece.

But things go sideways quickly. Roger soon begins to suspect that Diana, who wants children that Roger is unwilling to give her, may be having an affair with Clas. And soon it becomes apparent that Clas has an agenda, one in which Roger may play a critical role. Bodies begin to pile up and Roger can trust no-one, not even his own wife and that’s a very bad place for an art thief to be.

Veteran Norwegian director Tyldum is given a great canvas to work with – a book by acclaimed Norwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbo – and makes the most of it. He takes a hero who has a lot of issues – Roger repeatedly tells us in the voice-over that he’s only 5’6″ and visually we see that Diana towers over him so there is definitely some compensation going on. His need to provide a lifestyle that everyone but Roger can see that Diana doesn’t particularly want or need illustrates a profound misunderstanding of women. In my experience, most women would give up a lifestyle in favor of a life with the man they love. They’re funny that way.

Tyldum got himself a fine cast to work with. Hennie is a major star in Norway although here in the United States he is little known. He imbues Roger with great intelligence, moving Da Queen to favor him with remarks like “he’s so smart!” which coming from her is not unlike the Medal of Honor. Roger is not one to fight so much of the film is spent with him in flight – which may be off-putting to Americans who tend to like their heroes to be men of action. I like it that Roger is physically unimposing, and I think Hennie is perfectly cast in the role, with eyes that project both intelligence and self-doubt.

Coster-Waldau makes a menacing villain, one who seems on the surface to be every inch the match and more for Roger. In fact, Clas is meant to be the anti-Roger – handsome, successful and possessed of nearly unlimited funds. Roger is supposed to be the underdog.

And yet he isn’t. In some ways, Hennie is too good at his job – despite the description of Clas making him out to be a genius in electronic surveillance gear, he comes off as an intellectual inferior to Roger and his menace comes more from his relentless pursuit. He’s supposed to be a CEO; making him a former special forces sort muddies the waters and stretches belief. Personally, I would have had Clas be an older man who is less physical; perhaps he sends out a different character played by Coster-Waldau to seduce Diana and pursue Roger.

However, despite my feelings about Clas I still think this is an excellent thriller, one which Hitchcock would have definitely approved of. It’s clever, well-written and contains some well-choreographed action scenes, including one where Roger attempts to escape from psychotic Clas in a farm vehicle with Clas’ attack dog dangling from the machinery. That’s not the kind of visual you get from a Hollywood film, and it’s one I’m sure we won’t be seeing when Summit (the makers of the Twilight series) remakes the film in a couple of years.

REASONS TO GO: Clever throughout, with decent twists that keep the audience just off-balance enough.

REASONS TO STAY: Greve is not a believable CEO; seems far too psychotic, even for a ruthless businessman.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some bloody violence and some images that are on the grisly side. The sexuality is pretty strong and there’s some brief nudity to go along with it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is best known to American audiences for his appearances on the “Game of Thrones” and “New Amsterdam” TV shows; this is Lund’s first foray into acting after successful careers as a model and as a journalist.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/29/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The movie is getting outstanding reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Thomas Crown Affair

JO NESBO LOVERS: The popular Norwegian crime author is best known for his Detective Harry Hole series. This is based on his first non-Hole book in the thriller genre.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop

Chloe


Chloe

The garden isn't the only thing that's growing in this greenhouse.

(2009) Thriller (Sony Classics) Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Max Theriot, R.H. Thomson, Nina Dobrev, Mishu Vellani, Julie Khaner, Laura de Carteret, Natalie Lisinska, Tiffany Knight, Meghan Heffern, Tamsen McDonough, Kathryn Kriitmaa. Directed by Atom Egoyan

 

Sexuality is one of mankind’s preoccupations, and it occupies a good deal of our time and energy. We ascribe to it wonders and magic, but in truth it is just a physiological function. For a physiological function we sure give it a whole lot of our thought.

Catherine Stewart (Moore) is a gynecologist who knows more about the physical aspects of sex than most. She knows about it more professionally than personally however; her marriage to academic David Stewart (Neeson) has become more platonic over time. She chalks it up to familiarity and age, but there are signs that her good husband may be cheating on her.

Being a smart, capable professional lady rather than confront her husband or hire a detective, she hires Chloe (Seyfried), a prostitute she meets to attempt to seduce her husband and then report back to Catherine as to whether he takes the bait.

Soon, we discover that Chloe may have an agenda of her own and that Catherine is having a crisis of sexuality of her own. When Chloe takes Catherine and David’s son Michael (Theriot) under her wing, that agenda may be turning sinister.

Canadian director Egoyan is one of those cinematic soldiers who is better known to art-house lurkers and professional critics than the general public.  He is a talent who looks at sex in a more straight-forward way than his neighbors to the south tend to; he neither romanticizes it nor demonizes it, simply recognizes that it is a part of life.

Here there is a certain kinky side to things and Egoyan doesn’t shy away from that either. I’m not necessarily talking about fetishes so much as exploring darker aspects of our sexuality, and using sex to get what we want. Chloe is not above such things.

Although Neeson is the marquee name, Moore is the star of this show. Her Catherine is a complex, multi-layered creature who doesn’t always act the way you’d expect her to. I get that they’re trying to show her insecurities just beneath her professional demeanor, but c’mon, for someone as smart and accomplished as she is she sure does some dumb things (as mentioned above).

Seyfried, the sweet waif from Mamma Mia has become one of the more reliable young actresses out there. Here, she does the femme fatale for the first time that I’m aware of and she pulls it off very nicely. Her Chloe is obviously disturbed and has some pretty sick issues, but you still wind up feeling a little sorry for her, even after…well, let’s not get into that. Don’t want to spoil things for you.

Egoyan and writer Erin Cressida Wilson are not entirely to blame for this; Chloe is based on a French film by Anne Fontaine called Nathalie which I have not seen but I am assured by SF Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle is a pretentions and overbearing load of twaddle. I found that a bit surprising since Fontaine is normally a very good writer and director.

Still, everyone makes a misstep once in awhile. The premise is a bit ponderous, I grant you that. I mean, why would any woman in her right mind ask someone she doesn’t know to seduce her husband to prove that he’s faithful? Sounds a lot like entrapment to me. And just because you have a beautiful, sexy young woman throw herself at a middle-aged married man doesn’t mean he’s cheating. It just means he can be tempted – who’s to know that he would have ever strayed if not for the machinations of his wife.

Chloe is an Atom Egoyan film, so that means it won’t be completely without any merit whatsoever. There are certainly elements that are recommendation-worthy. However the cohesive whole doesn’t quite make the cut for me.

WHY RENT THIS: Good work by Moore and Seyfried, with Neeson in more of a supporting part. Extremely sexual which immediately casts it as non-American in origin.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The erotica is kind of Skinemax-worthy. Catherine doesn’t always act according to character.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual dialogue in the movie, some nudity and other foul language., not to mention a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming this movie, Liam Neeson’s wife Natascha Richardson passed away as a result of injuries sustained in a skiing accident. The schedule was rearranged so that Neeson only needed a further days of shooting after returning to the set.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11.7M on a $14M production budget; the movie was not profitable at the box office.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Woman in Black

Young Adult


Young Adult

Mavis prepares for battle.

(2011) Black Comedy (Paramount) Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser, Collette Wolf, Jill Eikenberry, Richard Bekins, Mary Beth Hurt, Kate Nowlin, Jenny Dare Paulin, Rebecca Hart, Louisa Krause, Elizabeth Ward Land, John Forest. Directed by Jason Reitman

 

We are all of us a product of our upbringing, for better or for worse. We are shaped in ways that aren’t just shaped by our parents and our homes but also our peers, our schools, our experiences. The people we are can be traced in a direct line to the people we used to be in high school, sometimes for the better but not always. Sometimes we’re exactly the same.

Mavis Gary (Theron) is a writer of young adult fiction. To be more accurate, she’s a ghost writer of young adult fiction. She has taken over an immensely popular series of books set in an exclusive prep school and has presided over a successful run which is now coming to an end. In fact, she’s in the midst of writing the final book in the series.

Mavis lives in the big city – Minneapolis, not New York – but originally hails from a small town in Minnesota called Mercury. She fled the small town environs the first chance she got and she has no real desire to return – in fact, she hasn’t been home in years.

However all that changes when she gets a notice that her ex in Mercury – Buddy Slade (Wilson) – has just become a daddy. He has married Beth (Reaser), a classmate of theirs while Mavis has been married and divorced and now goes on a series of dates that end up in unfulfilling sex after a fair amount of liquid courage has been consumed. She gets it in her head that Buddy is trapped in a marriage that is sapping his soul and that she needs to go to Mercury and rescue him.

With her poor neglected dog in tow, she drives to the despised Mercury. While there she runs into Matt Freehauf (Oswalt) whose locker used to adjoin hers. She doesn’t really remember him until he brings out that he was the victim of a hate crime – a group of jocks who believed he was gay brutally beat him, shattering his leg and mangling his penis. It was big news…up until the moment the media found out that he wasn’t gay and so they lost interest. Apparently nobody cared that a short fat kid got the crap kicked out of him.

Matt and Mavis seem to be kindred spirits in  a way; although Mavis treats Matt like a toad, she respects that he tells her what he thinks and doesn’t kiss butt. For his part he figures out he has no shot with her anyway so he can afford to be direct.

He pleads with her that Buddy is happily married and in love with being a dad but Mavis is having none of it. She blows into town with all the finesse of cancer and inspiring twice the joy at her arrival. Most of the townspeople look a bit askance at her; she was the beautiful girl who left for the big city and made good – why the hell would she come back and ruin everything? But come back she does and ruin everything she tries to do.

Theron gives a terrific performance here. Mavis is distinctly unlikable and possibly even a little psychotic. She is self-obsessed to the point of mania and really doesn’t have a lot of empathy which you can read as “any.” Still, she manages to create a character that you can follow without liking, which is a neat trick that you can thank not only Theron but Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, the latter two who previously teamed on Juno.

Her chemistry with Oswalt is surprising. They are perhaps the ultimate of odd couples, but they do have a bond – the misfit who has been literally battered by life and the prom queen whose life has passed her by and whom, she suspects, happiness has also passed her by. Matt is positive that happiness has passed him by and he fills his hours with creating his own mash-up action figures and distilling his own bourbon, a hobby that meets with Mavis’ approval.

The problem here is that it’s sold as something of a black comedy but the awkward moments outnumber the funny ones. I guess my comedic sense is a bit too stone age for modern comedy but just creating a painfully awkward moment isn’t really enough to get me chuckling. Theron does a great job as Mavis but there are times you really want to punch her in the face.

I like that the ending didn’t take the easy way out with a typical Hollywood comeuppance. I also like that the movie is intelligently written, which is a certain box office kiss of death. Still in all, I can recommend the movie not without reservations but nonetheless worth seeing.

REASONS TO GO: Theron and Oswalt do stellar work. Nifty ending that isn’t too cliché.

REASONS TO STAY: As comedies go, not really funny. Mavis is a bit too unlikable at times.

FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of foul language and a bit of sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mavis drives a Mini-Cooper in the movie. Theron also drove a Mini-Cooper in the movies once before, for The Italian Job.

HOME OR THEATER: I’d guess this works just as well at home as it does at the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey

Solitary Man


Solitary Man

Michael Douglas - alone again, naturally.

(2009) Drama (Anchor Bay) Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, Mary-Louise Parker, Jenna Fischer, Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, Ben Shenkman, Richard Schiff, Olivia Thirlby, Jake Richard Siciliano, David Costabile. Directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien

As men get older, they see their vitality slipping away from them, their attractiveness. It is the nature of men to seek out sexual validation, particularly from younger, more attractive women. We need it to remind us that the lion still has teeth and can still roar when need be.

Ben Kalmen (Douglas) was once the toast of Manhattan. As Honest Ben Kalmen, he was one of the top car dealers in the Big Apple. He had a great wife in Nancy (Sarandon), a beautiful daughter in Susan (Fischer). However, he lost all of it – his wife because of his numerous and public infidelities, and his business because of his shady bookkeeping practices.

Now, he’s trying to get it back. He has a new girlfriend, Jordan (Parker), who used to be married to a mobster and now is trying to get with someone nice. She sends Ben up to a school near Boston with her daughter Allyson (Poots) to help check out the place, which also happens to be Ben’s alma mater – and he is able to pull a few strings to get her in. He takes a tour of the joint with Daniel (Eisenberg), a kind of socially awkward kid that Ben takes under his wing a little bit and tries to educate in the ways of men, at least the way manhood as Ben sees it. And then, Ben does something incredibly stupid and in the space of a few moments wipes out everything he’s trying to do.

Now Ben is struggling openly, now with serious heart trouble he finds a job at a deli with an old friend (De Vito) and learning humility in ways that he never thought he could – but are those lessons really taking? Or is Ben still the same man he always was, doomed to make the same mistakes?

This is one of those roles Douglas has excelled at. Not a very nice guy, is this Ben Kalmen. Like Gordon Gekko and the heroes of most of Douglas’ movies, there is a real son of a bitch at the core of his character. He isn’t particularly likable but in every instance he’s compelling. You hate what he’s doing but you can’t look away. Here, Douglas is at his best – this is one of his best performances in the past ten years hands down. When his doctor tells him that his heartbeat is irregular, Douglas’ face freezes and you can see his world coming to a stop. It’s a terrific moment, one that can only be accomplished by a great actor and Douglas is most certainly that.

His scenes with De Vito, who worked with him so regularly in the 80s, are masterful, two old pros comfortable together with one another and knowing each other like an old married couple. It doesn’t hurt to have people like Susan Sarandon supporting you either, and in all honesty, all of the actors here do a terrific job, with Eisenberg, on the cusp of stardom as he filmed this, particularly good in a role that on the surface seems a lot like the other roles he does but the more you watch him you realize that Eisenberg has some pretty good range that you never thought about.

It’s too bad the story here didn’t measure up to the acting. Unfortunately, there are a few cliches that get in the way of truly enjoying this. In addition, the movie loses steam near the end and the ending is a bit predictable leading up to the final scene.

In that final scene, Ben is given a shot at redemption but a pretty girl walks in front of him. He stands up, with the option of walking after the girl and into his old self-destructive ways, or towards forgiveness and maybe, a life. The credits roll before he makes his choice, but you honestly don’t know which way he is going to choose. Even though the events leading up to this moment are somewhat cliché, you are still left wondering which way events are going to transpire and for my money, that’s a great ending.

This is a seriously flawed work that is redeemed by the strength of the performances, which are almost to a person worth seeing. Ben Kalmen is not someone you’d probably want to have in your life, but he is incredibly charming and I sure didn’t mind spending a couple of hours with him. You’ll no doubt find yourself feeling the same way.

WHY RENT THIS: Douglas is spectacular and gets some fine support from DeVito, Parker, Eisenberg, Poots and Sarandon.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story was a bit cliché and lost steam in the final 20 minutes.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of bad language and a fair amount of sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The college scenes were filmed at Fordham; Douglas’ next movie (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) also was filmed at Fordham and also had Sarandon in the cast.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.2M on a $15M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Twilight Saga: Eclipse