61 Days of Halloween- Crawlspace

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment so I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

Crawlspace

David Schmoeller on set with Klaus Kinski. (Empire Pictures)

Crawlspace is the kind of film that just misses. What is worse is that it wastes the talents of Klaus Kinski. He does as much as he can in a role that isn’t quite up to snuff for an actor of his caliber. The issue with the character ends up being one of the ones with the film. While the voice over is well written too much of what we know about our lead is learned through it, such that it renders more nebulous than necessary the one motif it leaves as mostly visual.

The set up is all well and good, to an extent. Things are little vague but you do get a quick kill and a sense of the mania that infests this man’s mind.

Although somewhat clumsily introduced the information we find and some of the scenes we watch are rather compelling. Particularly the confrontations with a man seeking justice for the death of his brother. Where things come apart for good are during the climax as there is a very awkward crawling chase through the ventilation system that takes far too long.

Aside from that the film spends an overwhelming amount of time with Kinski’s character, which is fine but there is not enough time spent with who we are supposed to root for at the end. Moreover, her one major appearance in the middle portion of the film, while intellectually accurate (maybe), doesn’t endear her to us. It’s a film that’s setting you up for a very macabre ending but then asks you to root for the same old, same old when it hasn’t really been earned.

5/10

Review- Final Destination 5

Jacqueline MacInnes Wood and Nicholas D'Agosto in Final Destination 5 (Warner Bros./New Line)

Were I to be completely and totally hateful I’d start this review with something like: “Final Destination 5, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways” and I would do so without any sort of qualifications. Instead I will qualify this review by stating the following:

I have gone to see each and every Final Destination film willingly and while two of them have been atrociously bad at the very least they had me come coming back. I absolutely love the first installment of the series without any reservation and I still think there are possibilities in the concept which keeps bringing me back but this…this is a train wreck and not the kind where you wanna stick around and watch either. It’s just nightmarishly bad almost from the word go. So what makes this one so much worse than the others? Now, I can say with far much less crassness than I would’ve otherwise, let me count the ways:

Firstly, I think all the sequels have struggled in terms of casting, there aren’t that many Devon Sawas around these day to plop into these kinds of films, however, I cannot recall the last time I was this appalled and offended by the ineptitude of the cast of a film. I will not name the names but you have the internet use the IMDb. The most prominent characters in the film are portrayed by those with the least chops or the least faith in the material. If you look at those top three there is at least one who has proven in the past she can act so part of it falls on the direction also.

However, your two leading males are made even worse by comparison when Tony Todd waltzes in for a few scenes and just blows everyone out of the water.

Now, there’s also the writing to blame. This is best evidenced by Agent Block, which I believe was likely shortened from Agent Blockhead in earlier drafts because rarely if ever have I seen a character this stupid, much less one that’s supposed to be in law enforcement. The last character I saw that was this dumb was in Satan’s Little Helper and he was a kid not a cop. Courtney B. Vance is a good actor but he cannot salvage dialogue so bad that anyone with half-a-brain who ever saw a police procedural show can punch holes in.

While one piece of the formula which was the persistence of visions (Oh, film jokes) is gone here (as there’s only one) and I’m fine with that but it’s as if they had to fill it with something and what they did fill it with is even more annoying because the paranoia they feel knowing death has a plan goes outward and it turns the movie into something it’s really not. You also have in this film fewer false alarms, near misses and chain reactions therefore while the kills might be more spectacular in execution they have less suspense leading up to them and you have here the flattest, least likable characters to date so all you’re left with is hoping for deaths that you know will happen.

It’s true I feel 80s slashers skewed the equation of the horror film where in certain cases you wanted death but even they knew better than to always kill everyone. Almost invariably there was a character you couldn’t stand that wouldn’t get it. Here it seems as if the effort has become less and less in terms of building characters that you’re at least interested in watching dodge death’s attempts.

What could possibly make bad acting, bad casting, bad writing, bad directing any worse? Oh, yeah there’s a twist too not only that but it changes the nature of this film and I really wish it hadn’t it’s as if what preceded the end of this film wasn’t bad enough it needed a little coup de grace.

All in all I can’t say I’ll give up on the franchise because there is something inherently scary about having escaped fate and then always looking over your shoulder and it takes a lot to squander that (and they did). So it’s a new low in the series that will hopefully take the next one (which there may or may not be) back to its roots.

1/10

Review- Terri

Bridger Zadina, Jacob Wysocki and John C. Reilly in Terri (ATO Pictures)

Terri is a film, which tells a very low-key, stripped-down and honest account of teenage ostracism and the perils of adolescence which is refreshingly devoid of convention and condescension. In the film you get an honest portrayal of how facile ostracism is, how sudden it can be and an honest look at how it’s dealt with if it’s dealt with at all.

The film has a very deliberate and precise construction at the beginning of the film to illustrate the lack of variety and proclivity to be routine-bound, in Terri’s life. We see from the very start that breakdowns in communication are a major factor in the difficulties he’s facing. When an obsession he has boarders on sociopathy his uncle, played brilliantly by Creed Bratton, is at a loss for words to adequately express what his true disappointment is. Similarly, his homeroom teacher (Tara Karsian) can see he’s bullied and how it affects him but is too beaten down and burned out to do anything about it. It’s these kinds of subtle accurate portrayals that you get in Terri that make the story truly work.

It deals with adolescence not with histrionics or apologies but with understanding and sincerity. A lot of what happens in the movie just happens and there is little to no commentary about it by the characters through much of it so it avoids, by a wide margin, both sensationalism and pandering.

The acting in this film overall is quite brilliant. There is a healthy mix of new faces, tried and true character actors and one notable name in perhaps the most pivotal role. The latter, of course, would be John C. Reilly who plays the well-intentioned but imperfect assistant principal who takes it upon himself to have weekly meetings with the school’s more troubled students. His monologue about his imperfections is so truthful and beautiful it got me teary-eyed out of the blue and although it is a function of the movie to create drama, the fact that he is the one person in the school who does try does ring a little true and there are some wonderful surprises in store from his character.

Then, of course, you have the lead Jacob Wysocki as Terri. Whenever you have an eponymous character you need that character and that performance to connect and for there to be some kind of universal resonance and there most certainly is here. In this film a lot of Terri’s maladjustment on the surface is something many can relate to. The root cause is that he feels like an outsider or freak due to his weight but the symptoms socially and otherwise are ones many can relate to: having difficulty making friends, talking to girls, academics and so on. There’s a timidity and amiableness to both the character and the performance that makes him connect even when he’s making a mistake.

There are also two very strong turns from classmates of Terri’s Bridger Zadina as Chad and Olivia Crocicchia as Heather. The former perhaps runs a larger emotional gamut and has a character whose strangeness and backstory is never defined so the fact that he arrives in place where his performance always feels organic and never contrived is quite a feat in and of itself. Zadina always finds himself in a place where he’s rebelling against the status quo yet there’s a depth and sensitivity to his portrayal that makes Chad equally compelling to the other characters. Crocicchia as Heather also has a lot to do and not much time to do it in and is natural and convincing in all stages from popular girl, to depressed and marginalized to just another student who blends into the background.

It’s the building of these characters which allows for the film to bifurcate yet do it so successfully. One part of the film is very much a cloistered, private confessional between Terri and Mr. Fizgerald (Reilly) and then towards the end there’s a long sequence that’s reminiscent of a modern, private, more exclusive Breakfast Club wherein these characters exorcise their demons over the course of a night and similarly bare their souls.

Perhaps, what’s most intelligent about the film is that it offers no easy answers. There’s no real resolution to it just as there’s no real resolution to adolescent angst. They just all reach a point from which they can move on to a new and hopefully better chapter in their life and that might be what sticks with you most about the film. It’s that fact upon reflection I connected with most and I feel that adolescents who see it would too.

9/10

Review- Bad Teacher

Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher (Columbia Pictures)

Bad Teacher is a weird little film. The further removed I’ve gotten from seeing it the less I’ve liked it though there are definitely issues I had with it right from the start. If anything that just goes to show you how disposable it is. While it takes a few pot shots at education that anyone who reads on occasion can take it doesn’t go there enough to be considered a satire and what it does decide to do is not well-executed enough to be memorable.

The level of funniness in a comedy is the ultimate barometer. This film did have me laughing consistently throughout but as opposed to something like Bridesmaids where my two friends and I each had favorite scenes nothing stands out tremendously. Aside from that a truly successful comedy is a rather mindless affair on its first viewing if you’re thinking about the plot or consequences of things the film is usually in trouble and that’s what happened here.

When the filmmakers decided to call this film Bad Teacher they weren’t kidding. The problem is she’s not just comedically inept at her profession she’s criminally inept at it that and she’s so inept that even if at the worst school it’s hard to believe she’d get away with these kinds of transgressions for that long.

The phrase minimal attempt can be applied to this film on more than one occasion. Firstly, there is a minimal attempt made by the Bad Teacher to fly right and get these kids to actually learn in pursuit of her goal: breast implants. Then there’s also a minimal attempt to establish her character aside from her suckishness at her job. Her marriage ends because she is a suspected gold-digger and nothing is done to dissuade us.

While she talks about getting into teaching for the wrong reasons perhaps that backstory should’ve been shown not said as well.

Now for the Tits McGuffin. It’s one of the longest McGuffin’s I could remember and while it makes perfect sense why she makes the decision she does I’d liked to have seen that decision not just the evidence. Furthermore her change in vocation is something I like but while it’s conveyed visually perhaps it could be set up with a short conversation with the principal.

The pace of the film overall is quick, however, some parts seem glossed over that shouldn’t and others that need expanding remain thin.

Fair warning that there is a good deal of impunity in this film and that’s something moralistically that you have to sort out on your own. However, one thing I will say is that this is the kind of film that maybe would benefit from a more modernistic approach to comedy with a bit more character-building. However, it is funny enough for me to pass it with a marginal grade of…

6/10

Review- The Art of Getting By

Freddie Highmore and Emma Roberts in The Art of Getting By (Fox Searchlight)

When I first saw a trailer for The Art of Getting By my initial reaction was that Freddie Highmore is back with a vengeance. This film, and the previously reviewed Toast, definitely bear that out. Highmore does some pretty difficult work in this film as he’s asked to make a character likable who is not very likable at a distance and who a lesser actor may make detestable.

However, the film establishes his philosophy on life and why he approaches it the way he does right off the bat through voice-over. The voice-over is used sparingly afterward but the “We’re going to die, so what’s the point?” attitude is not hard to wrap one’s head around it’s just that he takes it to an extreme level. However, I have no qualms with it because part of cinema is about living vicariously through others.

Of course, what does snap him out of that in part is a girl played by Emma Roberts. Hers is a task that’s also not very easy because in this film she plays perhaps the most enigmatic female lead I’ve seen since Emily Blunt in Wild Target. I believe I have cracked her as her behavior does seem strange and I think a lot of her subconscious motivation is that she really is a carbon copy of her mother but she fears admitting it and thus a lot of the irrational behavior you’ll see form her is explained.

While George (Highmore) is getting to know and like Sally (Roberts) the tension at home starts to bubble to the surface and he also is forced to come to grips with his slacking off at school and either make his work up or he’ll be expelled. Slowly and perceptibly he starts to change and the straw breaks the camel’s back you know he’ll make it up. A lot of the unexpected comes in his relationship.

What this film does well is that it manages intertwine several uncertain outcomes towards the end such that your focus isn’t entirely on one so even though things, to an extent, work out as expected there’s still that tension about which will be resolved when and how. One thing it keeps you waiting on is to see his one art project. It should also be noted that due to Sally’s enigmatic nature what she does at the end is by no means a sure thing.

While much of what you need resolved to have what can typically be considered a full filmic experience does get resolved there are a few things that are left open to interpretation. This openness was something I realized afterward where some events were viewed differently by myself and a friend.

For the most part this film does a fine job of carving out its universe and establishing who these people are and how their world functions. What never did jibe was the drinking. The leads are portraying high school seniors, eighteen-year-olds, yet they seem to be able to get alcohol by simply buying it (18 obviously being underage in New York City). This isn’t a prudish complaint, kids drink, if that factors in the story; fine. However, something as incongruous as getting served in a bar is something that cannot go unmentioned in the dialogue.

Despite a few unfortunate enigmas in the storytelling I believe that this film effectively created a narrative of the modern slacker and how he is snapped out of it and finds things to live for. The larger (or smaller) the world grows the more we can feel isolated at times so an occasional reminder about what makes it worth it is welcome.

7/10

Review- Bridesmaids

Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph in Bridesmaids (Universal)

Timing is an interesting thing and I think if I sat down to write this yesterday it might’ve been rather uninteresting, however, today is when I’m writing this and it’s after having read a very interesting New York Times article about the “Jokeless Comedy.” Bridesmaids is mentioned there and it fits the more character-driven mold Sternbergh makes reference to.

As with any approach it has its pros and cons and some cons can be avoided entirely if executed perfectly or very, very well. While it is very funny and enjoyable Bridesmaids doesn’t hit all the marks perfectly.

One of the best parts of the film is through these ladies, even in their silly exploits, we find quite a bit of commentary on youth, parenting, marriage, self-pity, jealousy, etc.

The script which is co-written by star Kristen Wiig is rather strong in building its protagonist and breaking her down. We are also very tenuously able to laugh at her misfortune without feeling sorry for her. This is made more difficult by the fact that it seeks sympathy and not pity but it succeeds.

It will never be a fault of a film if they attempt and take the time to build character and this film does. This films builds it and builds it well but the only sin that can be committed is building too much. The over-building and a montage too many happen in Act II making it a bit too long. Not too much of the information is redundant but some of it is.

This makes the film a bit longer than it should be and not too many laughs are added to the mix because of it. Judd Apatow is attached as producer to this film and another mandate of his lately apparently is that no film shall less than two hours long. This is not to say comedies ought never be that long but the reason so many run 90 minutes is because it works. It’s still just very hard but it’s easier to get your momentum up and keep the laughs rolling if the film is on the shorter side.

The cast of the film is brilliant, which helps greatly. Kristen Wiig does carry the film very well both in dramatic and comedic scenes. Maya Rudolph also does very well and makes a great partner for Wiig. Melissa McCarthy frequently steals scenes but Wendi McLendon-Covey was not to be outdone either.

The film is quite funny but I’d be hard-pressed to call it one of the funnier films in recent years, however, it is definitely recommended.

8/10

Review- Win Win

Paul Giamatti and Alex Schaffer in Win Win (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

When writing a review I am not one who revels in deliberating on flowery prose with which to acknowledge the contributions of actors in a film. This is not to say an actors contributions to a film are insignificant, the prevailing reason for this fact is that as wonderful or irrelevant as a performance is, my opinion usually boils down to the narrative and how well it functions. However, on occasion you’ll find a character-driven piece that is so perfectly cast that it bears mentioning front and center.

That’s the case in Win Win. This film is all about its characters and each of the actors assigned to their respective characters could not be more well-suited, it’s quite literally pitch perfect. Paul Giamatti plays a more humbled and down-to-earth character than he’s usually given to toy with. The vulnerability there allows us to identify with him even when he makes mistakes and we know it at the time. He is flanked by friends who despite very different outward personas hide hurts from which they seek refuge. Each is played brilliantly by Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor respectively.

The mentions of the cast will continue as necessary but I can proceed because what works best in this film is that it never devolves into a self-indulgent character study but allows the plot to flow from the characters.

It takes a sufficient amount of time to develop the characters and then allows the information to progress the story rather than have the plot move ahead and character development is left chasing. A prime example is Alex Shaffer’s character, he first shows up as a complication in Mike’s (Paul Giamatti’s) plan then we learn who he is, he wrestles to have something to do and then we discover he’s good. Director Thomas McCarthy’s gamble to find an actor who was a wrestler first paid off big time, as Shaffer plays the role of a disaffected teenager to a tee and adds more dimension to the role than perhaps was even written.

The dialogue in this film is funny and like everything else is character-driven. Nothing is flippantly tossed out for a laugh but everything grows out of who we learn these people are and how they’ll react to given situations. Jackie, Paul’s wife (Amy Ryan) is a prime example of this. A lot of her dialogue is hysterical but only within the context of who we discover she is and not inherently.

The characters get introduced to in drips and drabs such that we quickly, without being spoonfed, discover what makes them tick. The family dynamic is introduced with a triad of scenes each punctuated in profanity, the depths to which Terry (Bobby Cannavale) is suffering from his divorce is revealed slowly and almost as an aside and even wrestling, which ends up being a major component of the film, doesn’t get thrown into the mix straight away.

The film benefits greatly from having a very tight and neatly structured script that paces itself to perfection. Aside from making sound and effective narrative decisions it is great mechanically. As I was watching it I wondered if Newmarket Press had picked it up for the Shooting Script series (it seems it has not but hopefully it will).

The title of the film reflects itself in the narrative in a subtle way in as you get the resolution you wanted. Yet, it’s the manner in which it’s handled that’s the most satisfying. It’s not a sappy or stereotypical ending. Ultimately, the characters end up with what they want but not how they expected to get and not without sacrificing.

The climactic conflict that needs resolving to get to said point is also very well dealt with. To put it simply it’s wordlessly and cinematically resolved. There are times in life when we know words are futile and an action must either be forgiven or not and life must go on. This is even more true in cinema and few films realize and this one does.

This is a great serio-comic film that resonates with truthfulness and is the rare film I’d categorize as a must see.

10/10