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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Review- Safe House

Ryan Reynolds and Denzel Washington in Safe House (Universal)

Safe House is a film that in many ways is your standard spy-caper. I will give it credit by saying that it does try to do some different things to slightly alter the equation, however, it is ultimately the bits that are the same old song and dance that really get in this film’s way and trip it up.

To start out with the more positive notes, the film is very watchable and there’s a decent amount of tension due to the kinetic editing style. The beginning of the film is quite creative in as much as the cuts come quickly, but also break chronology such that you are investing in a situation, and getting information later. Eventually, the lackluster nature of the information betrays this artistry to an extent but this facet of the film did its utmost to elevate the piece as a whole.

The editing style was in part a necessity. The cinematography didn’t feature the worst abuses of hand-held camerawork I’ve seen, but the camera is hyperactive in this piece and it can be a turn off to those prone to motion sickness or are aesthetically averse to such things. For the most part it works, but there are points within it where I wish it would relax and the quick edits really salvaged many shots making them more watchable than they otherwise should’ve been.

The script develops a decent story in most respects. The setup and ultimate plot of the antagonist are intriguing enough. The problems come into the storytelling when elements that are overly-trite or too frequently done are brought into the mix in terms of dialogue and certain character’s attitudes. As with any tale of this nature suspension is of disbelief is necessary because there will be moments of absurdity. There are good elements to the scripting but definite issues that overshadow the positives to an extent.

The performances to an extent are also a mixed bag. In the positive column are Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds. Washington has thankfully taken to some quieter, more intelligent and less bombastic parts recently as opposed to things like Training Day, where I don’t find him nearly as interesting. He plays this character intelligently, but also gets to layer him. Reynolds has played action before but he also plays in a romance plot here and in very dramatic confrontations with many characters in this film and does equally well in all of them. It’s likely a performance of his that will be overlooked, though it should not be.

As for the problematic performances: One, sadly, is Brendan Gleeson’s, it’s not him in his top form. I’m unsure as to whether the character was supposed to have a slightly faded Irish brogue or if his American dialect was just off in this part, but it influenced the end result regardless. Another is Vera Farmiga and some of the issue is her character. There’s nothing to her. She’s a plot device. She believes what will likely be the official version of the story is really what’s happening, other than that there’s no characterization to her. I’ve liked Farmiga in some works quite a bit and been a bit too hard on other times, so I think when she’s stuck with a character of this ilk she really has a tough go of it.

Lastly, there are some surprising and pleasant twists but one of the biggest ones occurs in the third act and it’s terribly transparent from the start of the scene based on the entire execution, and the scene is far too long and it really detracts from what should be a pivotal moment.

Truth be told, I wasn’t planning on seeing Safe House, I saw it to have a dine-in movie experience. However, I will say that while I didn’t like it it was better than I thought it would be so you may see it differently than I did.

5/10

Review- Source Code

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan in Source Code (Summit Entertainment)

It’s not the easiest thing in the world to assess my feelings about Source Code and most of the reason why is that a lot of those feelings lie most definitely in an ambivalent place. There is surely plenty to like about it and some things to dislike and they are usually on very different ends of the spectrum such that the overall opinion lies somewhere in the middle with the elements of disparate quality pulling at you trying to make you lean one way or another. The bottom line is that this is a good film but there are a few concerns that keep it from getting any better than it is.

What deserves to be complimented first and foremost is the cast of the film. In particular the three main players: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan and Vera Farmiga. The first of which is the most pleasant surprise of the film. Gyllenhaal, in my estimation, had been a member of a group of young leads around his age who in mind were/are infinitely vanilla. Not great, and not terrible but also not bringing anything to the table. There aren’t too many dynamic young actors that bring something new to the table every time out but here he breaks free from those shackles and really shows a lot, which is made even more impressive based on observations I will make later.

Michelle Monaghan, who I had previously became familiar with through, and honored her for, Trucker, is absolutely perfect in this part. When an actress is given the confine of having to play a character that you could fall in love with over and over again and you only have eight minutes in which to do it in, that’s a formidable task and she accomplishes it easily.

Last but not least is Vera Farmiga, who manages to pull out a very good performance despite the fact that her scenes and dialogue are often redundant, which speaks a little to the screenwriting issues found herein. She all too frequently has to battle Colter (Gyllenhaal) and tell him his questions are irrelevant. She needs to have a very thin facade which breaks down over several conversations, in certain regards she has a bigger hill to climb than Monaghan. However, she’s not even afforded the same flexibility of scenario that Monaghan gets.

One of the other major issues of the film is the handling of the Sci-Fi element itself. Science Fiction seems to break off into two distinct groups there is an assumptive brand wherein futuristic or improbable things are occurring naturally and unquestioned, like in Inception for example where the dream-sharing and serums are given or the didactic wherein in a simulacrum of the world we inhabit in the present day is shown to us and a curtain is pulled back to reveal a secret that is explained to the audience. This film chooses the latter path, which in my mind requires a bit more explanation.

This film waits to grant us answers, which is fine because it allows us to identify easily with the protagonist but when we learn about the Source Code program, what it is and how it functions there are still questions that come to mind.

The idea is original and intriguing but it leaves you wanting for a bit too much which in this case is a double-edged sword. Similarly there’s the Maguffin. Now, it’s not necessary that you know its a Maguffin going in, however, I got a little ahead of this film in this regard. Once you realize finding the bomber is not the point of the story it takes too long for the narrative to catch up and after so many episodes it becomes a slightly tiresome exercise. It’s as if the film gets foisted by its own petard because the sequences are too frequent and short to keep the suspense of the whodunit alive.

A good Maguffin is one that is enthralling though perhaps never resolved. The best example is in Psycho. I care about Marion Crane’s early decisions: Stay or go? Take the money or not? I’m also rapt by her trying to elude the authorities. In the end it doesn’t really matter but it’s riveting. Here it gets tired and you’re left waiting for the bigger story to take over.

This is all said to illustrate that this is a good film that could’ve been made much better. With how the film ends, in terms of narrative not handling, it is most definitely a good film. It is just one that mishandled a few key elements that would’ve made it great.

I do have an appreciation of what was accomplished and intended I just wish it could’ve been greater and that was within reach.

7/10