Rewind Review: Orphan

Orphan promises, at least conceptually and in the trailer, to be a potential classic of the genre but unfortunately this film was marketed much too well for its own good. However, one would not expect it to be one of the dumbest, lousiest and most asinine films of any kind to be foisted upon the American public this year.

The film starts awkwardly both in acting and dialogue and to top it off in a clumsily handled dream sequence, and at this point it’s hard and uncompelling to start with a dream just for one truly unsettling image of a blood-soaked crying baby. Just because Fellini did and could start a film in a dream sequence doesn’t mean we all should. After all we’re not all Fellini are we?

Okay, perhaps even invoking Fellini’s name in this instance is blasphemous, however, it was to illustrate the apex of what they were trying to accomplish as compared to this lame-brained, stilted mess they presented. Bad is one thing but dumb is another and that comes next. So the dream reveals that the baby is stillborn, a lot of set up for one bit of back-story. Hence, let’s adopt. Their trip to the orphanage starts with Sarsgård delivering two awkwardly written “Snow Orphan” jokes about a snowman. It was just the beginning of a terribly odd, unconvincing, portrayal of this character in writing and performance.

Orphan (2009, Warner Bros.)

The sound mix on scare attempts and screams was just too loud and ineffectual and created near humor. The film also decides to incorporate clichés starting with Esther singing “That’s The Story of Love,” in a droll attempt at irony that only makes the film more annoying not just because the singing is flat but because it is delivered in Esther’s subtle yet annoying Russian accent – it’s also only vaguely Slavic until identified, which is also somewhat inaccurate as Eastern European accents are by no means interchangeable; this is more about writing and directing than acting. Fuhrman was consistent with it at least but the accent was worse than stereotypes because it’s milquetoast.

In bad movies even simple lines go wrong like when the Nun informs the couple Esther’s parents died in a fire, their response “A fire?” Yes, a fire. It happens – you watch the news.

It would be wondrous if horror films didn’t feel the need to include gratuitous sexual content. I emphasize gratuitous. This is not about prudery, but common sense. A couple with three kids all in Elementary school, by my best guess, would not canoodle about their kitchen pornographically so that they could get caught. Yet in the world of this movie they do and were caught. Didn’t see that coming. The conversation about “Mommy-Daddy Time” in the kitchen leads us to our first hint at the twist, unfortunately hindsight doesn’t make that conversation or the coital scene any better or any more logical so these little hints are better referred to as “clues,” in quotes, because they don’t really standout as brilliant touches after the twist.

Orphan (2009, Warner Bros.)

Now we come to the cliché of horror film characters just being too plain dumb to deserve to live and for your edification not enough of the people in this film that should die do. The body count I believe is just three. The parents are a little too slow to catch on. The mother (Vera Farmiga) goes from not suspecting a thing to suddenly having theories as to exactly what Esther’s problem is before taking her to a shrink, the shrink whose character is so dumb and is portrayed so annoyingly we won’t even discuss her except to point out the fact that movie psychologists should not be portrayed as dumb and useless because they’re not necessarily perceived that way and an incredibly brilliant psychologist is a tremendous weapon in a film and has been wielded well by many. The mother’s arc, however, is better than the father’s who is the worst horror cliché there is to the very end: The Doubter.

The Doubter is always the worst character, especially when very involved in the story for this reason: we as an audience are cognizant of the fact we are seeing a horror film so we immediately believe “Something’s wrong with Esther,” or whatever the given doubted fact is, so the slower the characters are to believe it the more annoyed we are apt to become. A great example of an unobtrusive doubter is in Halloween. The Doubter in that film, the Carpenter version, the original, is the Sheriff, Lori never doubts longer than is logical and at one point is lying to Tommy for his own good in her mind as she is doubting her safety. The Sheriff is such a minor character that him trying to thwart Loomis’s efforts at hunting down Myers never gets irritating because Michael and Lori are front and center for a bulk of the film. In Orphan The Doubter was in the family and all too present.

There are also these past incidents that creep up that would make a suspicious mind jump quicker such as some kid she used to go to school with “accidentally stabbed themselves” with a pair of scissors and the house fire that killed her parents was arson. Accidentally stabbing yourself with a pair of scissors, the way that’s phrased, makes it as transparent as saying someone “accidentally” hit themselves in the back of the head with a claw hammer. It’s ludicrous.

Orphan (2009, Warner Bros.)

One of the few nice touches was that a picture of the orphanage Esther drew glows in the dark to reveal a fire and deaths. This is quickly negated by having her plaster the walls with drawings and making a glow-in-the-dark pornographic mural, which makes it twice as bad as if the execution of the first drawing was off. The only other highlights are also counteracted by the terrible story but are worth mentioning. In horror film standards Vera Farmiga is very good in this for what’s worth. It would’ve been easier to appreciate her if her character wasn’t a dunce, that shackled her and Skarsgard in quite a few ways. On the other hand Jimmy Bennett’s character always hates Esther and about midway through you want him to take a hatchet to the whole family but unfortunately he doesn’t. He survives and the boy better known as the Young James T. Kirk does get more screen time here and thankfully, for his own sake, is hospitalized but alive in the third act.
Another case of dumbness: Esther gets mom really annoyed, mom twists her arm. Later Esther sticks her arm in a vise in order to break it. Dad believes mom did it. Really? Did you watch mom? Is it possible? I guess. Improbable? Yes. Yet the vise would leave some sort of marks, correct?

Another one: It is discovered Esther stayed at some clinic in Estonia. How? Her picture was online. On an asylum’s webpage? “Look at our crazies”? Why would an inmate’s photo be online? These are just some examples of the excessive demands on our suspension of disbelief that we as an audience are asked to accept. When one is not entertained or scared one can’t forgive such obviously flawed logic.
There actually is more, however, let us cut to the chase. The twist. I’ll give it to them for gambling but here are the problems there: first, the movie was already horrible or not in everyone’s mind so the twist either elevates it or makes it much worse. Even looking back at the scenes that did somewhat set the table like Esther trying to seduce her adopted father it didn’t work on any level. That scene was portrayed callously because the director mishandled it and had it played too innocent by Fuhrman and too passively drunk by Skarsgård, who only really told her off on her second or third attempt. The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things had a very similar style of scene but a much different situation and it was handled so much better. It was disturbing, repugnant, powerful and heartbreaking all at the same time and yet you couldn’t not watch it.

Orphan (2009, Warner Bros.)

Also, the twist is sort of an anti-climax. Is that the kind of modus operandi that makes you say “Brilliant, it practically writes itself?” No, it’s too convoluted. What purpose does that serve really? Is it shocking? Could be. It could also be humorous. As much as it was mocked later for being such a catch phrase no one laughed when they heard “I see dead people.”

A lot of people saw this movie coming out and thought of The Good Son. Well, surprise! It’s not. It’s worse, so much so. If you want The Good Son go rent it, I already have it. Skip this, I wish I did.

1/10

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Mini-Review: Shorts (2010)

Introduction

As those who know me, and if such a person exists, cyberstalk me, know I created this blog after writing on another site, which shall remain nameless, for a while. The point is, I have material sitting around waiting to be re-used on occasion I will re-post them here. Some of those articles or reviews may have been extemporaneous at the time but are slightly random now, regardless enjoy!

Shorts (2010)

Robert Rodriguez’s latest film Shorts is very good family fare. Rodriguez since the late-’90s has been a director who goes back and forth between action films like the El Mariachi series, which are generally more popular, and family films like Spy Kids, The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl and Shorts.

What is most interesting about this particular title is the way it’s structured. It uses a lot of voice over – which is a risky proposition, but it is well done and Jimmy Bennett narrates the tale with as much energy and zest as if he was onscreen. Rodriguez also employs a narrator who is not the greatest storyteller allowing him to play with structure and tells the story out of chronological order. There is also some fun had with video as the narrator stops, pauses, fast forwards and rewinds footage as needed.

It would make an interesting editing experiment for film schools to piece it together chronologically. This lack of sequence when combined with this particular story does cause some major pace issues in the second half of the movie. It is always enjoyable but just can’t compare to the breakneck speed of the first half. A similar movie in structure is The Sasquatch Gang but the story is low concept as opposed to high so pace suffers less.

Ultimately it is still a creative, inventive and fun film. In episode 0, before the credits, Rodriguez hearkens back to his great student film Bedhead and kept the same verve and pizzazz throughout. Shorts is a film that is always trying something new. You might not always like it, but at least it tries – and I simply have to like any movie with a booger monster in it.

6/10

Rewind Review- Trucker (2008)

As those who know me, and if such a person exists, cyberstalk me, know I created this blog after writing on another site, which shall remain nameless, for a while. The point is, I have material sitting around waiting to be re-used on occasion I will re-post them here. Some of those articles or reviews may have been extemporaneous at the time but are slightly random now, hence the new title and little intro, regardless enjoy!

Trucker is a film that knows that dialogue is precious and never wastes it. It is not afraid to leave the subtext as just that- subtext. Too many films feel the need to say what you’re already thinking, what you already know and fill in that blank for you when it’s not really necessary at all.

Written and directed by James Mottern it tells the tale of Diane (Michelle Monaghan) a woman who, as the title suggests, makes a living by driving a big rig. The curveball that comes into her life is that her ex-husband is dying and his wife Jenny (Joey Lauren Adams) can’t watch Diane’s estranged son (Jimmy Bennett) because her father is sick.

OK, so at this point you want to say “Stop, I’ve heard this one before” and you would be correct but the success of this film, like that of many films, is not necessarily in its originality because original concepts and stories are in short supply but in their execution. This story is executed quite well indeed.

The strength of this film, like any film which is about real people and real situations, should be in it its ensemble. Michelle Monaghan believed a lot in this project and wanted to flex her acting muscles which can be assumed by the fact that she signed on as a producer of this film. While always maintaining a consistent and true characterization she hit several different notes and her evolution from unwilling babysitter to mother was perfect, unspoken and like most things in reality not a steady upward climb as there are several missteps along the way. She has the looks and the ability to be an A-List leading lady.

When there is a mother-child team it needs to be a harmonious and comfortable fit for the actors engaged in the story or we as an audience will check out emotionally, even if intellectually we understand the plight; the connection needs to be made. For that connection to occur both actors need to be on equal footing and Jimmy Bennett is certainly that. Although this film has been in the can for a while this adds to a long and impressive string of performances that Jimmy Bennett has been putting together from projects as disparate as Asia Argento’s The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, one of the most psychologically effective and haunting movies of the decade to a blockbuster bit part like in Star Trek. His anger and rebellion at the beginning never feels petulant and whiny which shows that he was well-directed and at a young age has a good deal of natural talent.

The supporting cast is also worth mentioning: Joey Lauren Adams, who is best known for being Amy from Chasing Amy, who is very convincing as the woman stuck in the middle of all this family drama. Why she never had a career akin to Renee Zellweger’s is beyond me. Then there is Benjamin Bratt who played the sick father who is better than I’ve ever seen him in anything in this film. Him and his son share a very emotional scene which is the epitome of restraint on the part of both actors and it was great to watch. Nathan Fillion plays Runner the confidant and new father figure for Peter and was also very well-played and also a developed character of his own.

The film ends at the right time on a beautifully framed and orchestrated pull out, the pace is spot on and it never drags. It is always seeking to move forward and it never seeks answers but resolutions because that’s what we typically get in life: moving on, forgiveness, unspoken apologies and if you’re lucky a second chance.

8/10

Short Film Saturday: Ghild

As soon as I saw the opening image of Ghild I thought to myself “Wow, that looks great, I really hope there’s a live action component to this film.” Seeing as how it easily coud’ve been stop-motion or some other animated form based on the opening image, I thought that was nothing more than a pipe-dream, well sure enough it live action.

It’s some of the most creative production design I’ve seen since The Hole.

It’s also a hilarious concept, overall not just in narrative but also in conception and execution.

You may also recognize Jimmy Bennett as the father and Harland Williams in a cameo.

It’s the most I’ve laughed out loud in a while.

Enjoy!

Review- Alabama Moon

Uriah Shelton, Jimmy Bennett and Gabriel Basso in Alabama Moon (Faulkner-McLean Entertainment)

Alabama Moon is a film whose road to distribution was a long and winding one. In fact, it’s eventual home video release (which is how I ended up seeing it) was delayed because it finally got a limited regional release in the Gulf states, mainly Alabama (naturally). It’s worth noting that this model is not unusual. The straight-to-video release isn’t as profitable as it once was, and for some reason just as maligned even in this Streaming Age, so limited releases will act as a springboard for DVD sales.

Alabama Moon tells the tale of young Moon Blake, a boy who is raised in the woods by an eccentric father who is wary of both modernity and the government. Very early on, and rendered rather dramatically, Moon loses his father and much of the film will deal with how Moon tries to cope on his own, while trying to avoid authorities like a bumbling quasi-humorous cop played by Clint Howard or the clutches of a reformatory.

The standout of the film is the performance of Jimmy Bennett, who plays Moon Blake. He was most recently JJ on No Ordinary Family but is perhaps known for playing young James T. Kirk in the Star Trek reboot. While Bennett has played in much grittier, darker and dramatic vehicles before such as Trucker and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things this may just be his best performance to date. This role demands a lot of him not just in terms of highly-charged emotional scenes but also some comedic timing is required and he needs to be a grounded normal-seeming character in the film’s goofier moments. As I tweeted immediately after watching it he basically makes it worth watching on his own and is “crazy good.”

There are other performances of note as well. Those deserving first mention are Moon’s friends played by Gabriel Basso and Uriah Shelton respectively. They play very different kinds of characters but are equally good foils because it never seems unnatural that Moon would befriend either because they both seem to reflect disparate aspects of his personality both a fighter and a quiet, solitary type.

The adult casting offers more mixed results. John Goodman’s character thankfully plays a more crucial role later in the film than it seems he will early on and is very well played. Then we come to the last key figure which is the police officer played by Clint Howard. Now merely casting Clint Howard, or that you can cast him in the part, is already an indication of how you intend to play a part. Howard can play a creepy menacing type but more often than not he’s goofy and here he’s like a mean-spirited Barney Fife only less competent.

It’s in that writing and casting decision where the die is cast that the tone of the film will be a balancing act between very serious drama in a coming-of-age vein and lighthearted borderline screwball comedy that must counterbalance one another. It is to this film’s credit that it manages to keep them both in check and make the film both light viewing and emotionally engaging at the same time and also some of that credit once again goes to the cast.

The film manages to deal with quite a few themes in a subtler than expected manner despite the variegated tone. One of the main ones being individuation from parents specifically that one can accept their parents’s faults, love them for who they are and learn from them but must eventually learn to see the the world, and interact with it, in their own way.

It may be easy to read this review and see why this film has fallen through the cracks as it’s not exactly the easiest to pigeonhole, however, I hope that in reading this review you have also found it is worth your time.

I was rather pleasantly surprised by this film and I’m very glad I tracked it down.

8/10