Saturday, December 31, 2011

War Horse - Review

Now for Steven Spielberg, it is two for two. WAR HORSE is his absolute best film in quite awhile. Like his some of his other counterparts this year, he has presented a giant mixing pot of past films and their ideas with the traditional Spielberg trademarks added in for flavor. It is pure old school, from the John Ford-like construction to its stylish displays of violence that would have Sergei Eisenstein and David O. Selznick applauding. It also is deliberately hackneyed with its massive frothing of melodrama yet it has no shame. All of these come together to make one damn fine emotional movie, surely able to break out the tears and tissues.

On its surface, the film simply follows the life of a part-Thoroughbred horse, from his early life as "Joey" in Devon, England, to his constant trading of hands in WWI-era France, either as a tool for the English and German military or as a pet for a French girl. However, as the film unfolds and stated plainly in its transcendentally beautiful ending, it is about how warfare makes everyone and everything a tool, humbling them into absolute quietness. Having its main protagonist be a horse amplifies this point considerably in order to exploit the viewer.

I do not hate Spielberg for his exploitation of a horse in constant peril or of men in battle. That is really one of key factors of what makes film so great; to rip your mind to shreds with excitement and fear for maximum engagement. Spielberg does to World War I combat what he did to World War II in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Except, like the aura and current status of World War I in pop culture, he accurately displays why people don't talk about it often or even make works around it. This was a nightmarish time where trench warfare was the textbook example of insanity and where human class and respect ironically shook hands with bloodshed.

With the PRIVATE RYAN comparison, some snobs might cry out self-plagiarism, saving the plagiarism charge for the film's liberal use of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT imagery along with one of the latter film's iconic subplots involving a separate object. I didn't mind these possible complaints or anything else because I was witnessing the Spielberg experience again. I was amazed by Janusz Kaminski's striking cinematography and the musical movements of John Williams. I liked how Spielberg kept the audience on its toes, always playing with them and waiting to invoke terror and despair on his characters. He took advantage of my emotions and was able to reciprocate it with an immense gift.


Monday, December 26, 2011

The Darkest Hour - Review

Now when I think about it, I really wanted to see THE SOCIAL NETWORK in 3D. Who cares about factors such as expert tone and crisp dialogue when I can see a hot L.A. night club or the campus of Harvard pop out at me and dimmed to obscurity. The makers of THE DARKEST HOUR took up this challenge for its overlong opening half, going so far as to hire one of that film's actors and put him in a similar situation where preppy entrepreneurs fight over a networking site. Now we suckers of cinema can finally watch extreme boardroom scenes to the max, with plenty of douchebaggery to go around and be protruded into our faces.

THE DARKEST HOUR is so tepid and a full bore, the climax of the experience was ripping open your 3D glasses from the plastic pouch. I do like playing Russian roulette with unscreened genre fare but here the joke is on you; the gun was fully loaded.

I can't remember the names of the characters, nor any characterization beyond vapid American nerd, his handsome best friend, pretty New York runaway, and the beautiful foreign lass. The first two come to Russia for business, the latter for pleasure. They meet cute at a bar before being constantly on the run from invading invisible aliens. Meanwhile, in a far darker scenario, you are at the mercy of flat cinematography, yawn-inducing suspense, and all scenes ending with a fade to black. Director Chris Gorak loves those fades. What better way to conclude epic scenes such as walking up stairs with a lantern?

The film turns gonzo in its second half, where our heroes fight back with giant microwave-firing rifles and teaming up with Russian commandos who ride on license-plate armored horses and wield car doors as giant shields. That should sound totally awesome to behold, something Takashi Miike could easily do for critical acclaim at a more limited budget. Instead, all of the negative energy of the proceeding chapters wipes out any and all future excitement. We are thus left in a sad state of sorrow as talented performers such as Emile Hirsch and Olivia Thirlby embark on baffling stupid decisions and deliver whiny speeches about the power of humanity.

There is currently a movie company called The Asylum, who is infamously known for their schlocky takes of Hollywood blockbusters. THE DARKEST HOUR some how sinks far below their outputs, though guaranteeing itself for future weekend screenings with those movies on the Syfy channel. Not funny to enjoy in a "so bad it's good" mood, nor justified to see its screening times being displayed at your local theater.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Arthur Christmas - Review

I'm really getting tired of the mediocre performance and output being done of the movie studios' marketing department when it comes to animated films. None of the people working in there have any idea how to entertain, grab the attention and ultimately sell an animated movie for mass consumption and appeal. Instead, they use flat jokes, play-on-swear words, and repeated smiling facades that wouldn't play in a grade school play, let alone Peoria.

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is one of the more recent victims, since the monotone ad campaigns and criminally banal poster art hide a bountiful treat for the holiday season. It is justifiably joyous and has proper adult humor, namely with its plot that makes Christmas to be so completely corporation-driven, it has spread into the day to day operations of the North Pole. Santa Claus is no longer the magical gift-giver. He is now only a figure-head for symbolism and commercialism; a stooge and a old coot.

Powered by a flying battle-cruiser shaped like a sleigh called the S-1 and performed by acrobatic squads of elves instead of just jolly ole St. Nick, the laying of gifts is technologically ordered and done military-style at the hands of Steve, Santa Claus' oldest son and possible heir to the position. "Santa", who is 71 years old and was once named Malcolm, has the absolute power over everything but he is unable, nor wants to handle the now more complicated procedures. One present is found to be undelivered, a bike for a little girl in England, and the two agree and believe that it is an okay loss and mistake, most definitely once data and spread sheets backs them up. However, Santa's younger son Arthur, a klutz forcibly but lovingly embedded in the letter-reading and writing department, refuses to comply and decides to bring the bicycle to the girl before the sun rises in her neck of the woods.

This sounds pretty heavy for a holiday movie but the people at Sony and Aardman Animations are able to handle it while keeping up a friendly and funny tone throughout for the kids in the audience. Unfortunately, this already dense film is filled to the brim with more ideas and can get way too busy at times. A subplot where the Arthur's bad directions and actions with the original and magical wooden sleigh are interpreted as presences of an U.F.O. is utter nonsense. Also, though Arthur is a charming protagonist, he is a little too plucky and innocent. He doesn't receive an acceptable character arc, always staying in neutral with his goofy demeanor.

Regardless, ARTHUR CHRISTMAS does have a heartfelt message and is a pleasant surprise for Christmas fare. The film is well animated, most especially with its opening sequence where the commando elves infiltrate and invade Denmark. There is a lot to behold and laugh at, whether it is too British or a minute in-joke in the background. Even with some superfluous moments, it is fun little adventure and an interesting satire.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin - Review

Steven Spielberg is currently one for one. THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN is what is other films are often mislabeled as; It is a true and true action-packed thrill ride. No joke, this film is filled far past the brim with action that it might get exhausting just to watch it. For instance, in one very long chapter on a freighter, our titled hero exits from holding cell and room, engages in some fist-a-cuffs, retrieves a key in a packed living quarters, stealthy does some business in the radio room, then haves an intense firefight with his opponents and before barely escaping with his and his friend's lives on a rescue boat. All of this happens just because Tintin likes model boats.

By purchasing a model of the lost pirate ship the Unicorn, the intrepid reporter Tintin (Jaime Bell) and his dog Snowy are forced into a dangerous scenario with evil criminals, deadly vendettas, and even a kleptomaniac pick-pocket. He eventually meets up with Captain Haddock, played by the always charismatic Andy Serkis, whose drunken demeanor and mindset withholds a tainted family legacy and a bevy of pirate treasure. The three travel all around the world for clues, only for the more smarter audience to figure out the mystery and final destination by the half-way point. Still, the adventure is very enthralling and it is fun to have a nice laugh at and with the "gee, wiz" aesthetic.

The film was filmed and created with 3D motion-captured animation, one of the vilest film ideas to break out recently before kids began to learn about the uncanny valley. Here, Spielberg and his crew are able to work it to a high degree but retaining some of the same problems. The more cartoonish the character looks, such as Haddock and the detectives Thomson & Thompson, the better to easily go with the flow. However, some such as Tintin are kind of scary at times with their blank dead eyes. There is also the ugly displays of seeing fluid body movements on characters with stiff, misshapen heads. The latter is more apparent in any of the vibrant crowd scenes.

Still, the greatest hits of action spectacle is hard not to appreciate, most definitely the jaw-dropping one-take chase sequence in Bagghar. I also greatly adored the animation just outside the frame or in the background; whether it is Snowy's walking on spent alcohol bottles or a subplot involving a town's water shortage, Spielberg paid no expense to the landscape. Though the swashbuckling nature loses some luster and can lose a person's attention, the film is one great animated film and a classic movie serial under two hours.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Jack and Jill - Review

Hey, hey, hey, everyone! It's that time again for Adam Sandler's Mid-Life Crisis Variety Movie! This edition is sponsored by Coca-Cola, Dunkin' Donuts, and Royal Caribbean International. Returning once again as the supporting players is the Friends of Sandler Brigade. You can never not enjoy those folks. For this film, Sandler is pleased to bring to us JACK AND JILL, a "comedy" about the immense love and the misunderstandings that is shared by all families, especially around the holidays. Sandler will be playing Jack Sadelstein, and as Jill Sadelstein, his loud-mouthed twin sister, will be played by...Adam Sandler! Oh, this will be a joy to behold, let's watch and see.

No, no, you shouldn't watch, see, glare or even hear the pure garbage this monstrosity spews out. JACK AND JILL is far worst than can be predicted; a vile, scattershot creation that needed to be put out of its misery out back behind the dumpsters of Happy Madison Productions. But of course, Sandler always wants to stick up for any of his puke-green products and decided to ship this carcass to Columbia Pictures, to be duplicated for massive infection and devolution. JACK AND JILL is death, destroyer of theaters.

Jack is an L.A. ad man who produces television commercials. He has a wife and two kids. It is Thanksgiving time and he picks up his fellow Bronx-born sister for dinner. She stays longer than expected or he wanted. That's the outline of the plot. Add a love drunk and slumming Al Pacino, rampant product placement to the point where it literally becomes an actual commercial ("Welcome to Royal Caribbean International!"), and a ton of unfunny running jokes and behavioral problems for each and every character (He likes taping things to himself! She's a creepy abuela who chomps down hot peppers!) in each and every scene. There you have it, a complete disaster-piece written by Ben Zook, Steve Koren. and Robert Smigel.

Except for Al Pacino, who at least tries to camp up the bad material when he isn't awesomely insulting the other characters, everyone is either excruciating or a cardboard stand-in. Sandler mumbles and underacts as Jack but he punctuates everything that is already horrible about Jill and her demeanor. There's no reason we should care for Jill or cheer her in any way; we never learn anything about her besides a rampant incestuous vibe that is thankfully dropped at the halfway mark. Sadly, the writers or auteur terrible Dennis Dugan didn't remove her sexist, racist, princess mindset either. If they did that, then Sandler wouldn't have any material to work it. Oh no, we couldn't have that.

With each next installment with Sandler, Dugan continues to degrade into a far worse director. This film isn't a mess, it is a state of emergency. The bipolar script and its switches in tone and mood perfectly matches with Dugan's skills at making a story. The cutting of shots has people magically transported in and out of frame along with their costumes changed for random humor. The movie also has a lot of cameos, and not just Sandler's best friends mind you. This features such luminaries as the Sham-Wow guy and gives Bruce Jenner another terrible film to be included in. But of course, they can't really be called cameos because Dugan has them explicitly told to us so as not to confuse our simple minds. Honestly, except for bad movie nuts, does anyone know or truly care who Billy Blanks is?

This movie gets atrocious and hate-inducing when you actually think about its themes and messages. Like any film that involves drag or drag acting, there is a sequence where Jack has to dress up as Jill, in order to swoon Al Pacino into doing a Dunkin' Donuts commercial. For hilarious reasons, he has to do it in a public men's room instead of his own bedroom. The punchline has the quiet attendant helping him out and complementing it, basically informing the audience that transsexuals exist and are beautiful like anyone else. Dugan however, a person who has had an acting history as stereotypical gay guys, wanted to negate this by having a later scene where Katie Holmes calls a Jack "a weirdo". Also, if you are an atheist, you are a rat-faced hipster that should be shouted at and beaten up in public with a broken table leg.

JACK AND JILL was rated PG by the MPAA, despite featuring many racial insults and crude jokes about female hygiene. THE ARTIST received a PG-13 rating for a quick flipping of the bird and a gun being used. This comparison, or anything that you can think of, is the final nail in the coffin for myself. The only salvation I had with this piece of phlegmatic tripe is its ending. Screw the spoilers. JACK AND JILL ends with Al Pacino disowning the commercial he just witnessed, threatening Jack that it should be burned immediately and anyone who has seen it should be seriously talked to. Earlier in the film, it is stated that if the commercial can't be done, Jack's company will fold. What a great note to end on.


Monday, December 19, 2011

Take Shelter - Review

TAKE SHELTER is a nice little thriller by writer/director Jeff Nichols, with its balancing of surreal imagery and a far realistic tone. As with the mind of its main character, the viewer is tasked to figure out if the mental dreams can be fixed quickly before damage is done or if they are a prelude of things yet to come. I did enjoy my time with this study of a man fuelling his apocalyptic fears in front of his family and friends but the great performances can't completely mask its shortage of high tension and anticipation to see what happens next.

Michael Shannon is Curtis, a blue-collar working father from Ohio who supports his artistic wife Sam, the right now always excellent Jessica Chastain, and their hearing-impaired daughter. Starting from the first scene where Curtis is rained on by a petroleum-like substance, he begins having a series of enscalating nightmares where he is attacked by his zombie-like neighbors and his beloved dog. Hallucinations then seem to enter his eye's view with peculiar flight patterns of birds and multiple thunder strikes. These phenomenons lead to several severe panic attacks and a few humiliating moments for his manhood, such as wetting the bed. However, at the same time all this is going on, Curtis mysteriously comes into attention with news stories about chemical attacks, sales on large storage units and his backyard storm shelter. He begins to expensively fix up the shelter for the possible storm, much to the chagrin of others, while at the same time trying to figure out if these are just early signs of a hereditary mental illness he might share with his mother.

This film both premiered at Sundance and came out near the release of MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE. Unfortunately, TAKE SHELTER doesn't have everything that made MARTHA a highly intense movie to watch. It takes its time, drawing out scenes to have the viewer reflect on them but the characters aren't always engaging in something thrilling to watch. There's a little too many scenes where Shannon is just looking up at the sky or having a brief non-important conversation with someone. I don't mean to be too harsh for the film doing a realistic and more internal approach. I very much admire the attempt but it didn't always hold up, especially with the script's liberal use of having characters speaking out obvious foreshadowing lines, such as Curtis' health insurance and a work get-together. The latter event pretty much sums up the film as a whole: Curtis is forced into doing the generic, patent public display of craziness but Michael Shannon captures the spirit back with a hellfire and brimstone monologue before falling apart on his wife's shoulder.

TAKE SHELTER is a very commendable picture to come with another fantastic display of Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain's immense talents. It feels stiff at times, a bit easy-going when watching human and mental misery but the actors and Nichols' direction lead to some truly stellar moments, especially with its grand finale that is certain to lead to some debate amongst yourselves. Just be sure not to stock up on treats before watching it. Not because of a fear of spilling them due to frights, but you might enter into Curtis' mindset a little too well.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Hugo - Review

I've always been a fan of Martin Scorsese the movie lecturer, the cinema teacher, and the film preservationist. As for being a director, it is sadly a giant bundle of mixed feelings for myself due to his odd, but nevertheless peculiar, outputs. For his his newest film HUGO, Scorsese got to highlight, underscore, and triumphantly show off all of his favorite hobbies in one big magnum opus for families. Though adapted from a children's book and written by John Logan, the film screams the real-life sensibilities and feelings of Scorsese; it is a heavily made fan fiction of the origins of cinema with plenty of PSA moments to fill in the rest of the gaps of its long-winded running time of a little over two hours.

It is hard to discuss this movie without giving out the major spoiler and central mystery, even though I have already alluded to it. The story sets itself up as something completely different: a story of a orphaned boy who lives and works at a Paris train station when he isn't stealing food or toy mechanisms, running from a constantly harassing train inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), or suffering from his other Dickensian nightmares and perils. That's all fine and dandy but it really isn't the main interest, nor is it really all that interesting to watch.

That is where Ben Kingsley's character comes into the spotlight. The begrudging, self-loathing old man at the station's toy shop, who does have some tendencies to break his cold facade with magic tricks, becomes more important to Hugo's main plot of fixing up an old automaton found by his late father. Foreshadowed expertly by Scorsese, the man is revealed to be a certain long lost film director, a person who brought many innovations to the world of cinema but, more importantly, brought dreams to real life.

Everything involving Kingsley, who gives a great performance, and his torturous past are some of the absolute most striking moments to come out this year. Scorsese, along with Robert Richardson's excellent camerawork and his creative art and costume designers, make exquisite beauty within the film frames and truly hit my movie-loving heart. I can forgive the Scorsese surrogate and the deliberately hammered-in guided tours for general audiences, because this man got to recapture why film matters to the world and why it has such an impact on the human soul.

Unfortunately, this transcendental bliss I experienced is not expanded further or more in-depth as it should have been. This is because, to the detriment of the film, the focus is placed more squarely on Hugo and his plight. This is not at all Asa Butterfield's fault as the boy, since he is capable to pull great emotional punches and has piercing blue eyes to warm any soul. Instead, it is the character himself, a pretty boring street-rat with really no personality, no future goal beyond fixing a broken machine, only plenty of buckets of sorrow and whining. The character drags the story so much that it impacts the screen-time of the rest of the supporting players, who have more interesting darkness to them but at least try to see the better side of life.

Hugo simply can't carry HUGO. If Scorsese and Logan wanted to find a better suited protagonist, they should have dared to loosely adapt the book and put the focus and viewpoint of the story on Kingsley's granddaughter Isabelle. Played nicely by Chloe Grace Moretz, she is more engaging and has a better back story and personal drive to help out Kingsley. Fueled and influenced by the words and worlds of books, she is strangely banned to attend any movie theaters and seemingly hasn't thought to question it or adventure it out for herself. She even shares the sad personal history of Hugo's, even tying in with the film's focus on the effects of Europe after World War I. By going in this different direction, while retaining Hugo as a supporting player for Isabelle, the film could have completely justified being a complete family treasure instead of just feeling dull and way to somber to truly enjoy.

It really does hurt myself that such beautiful moments achieved by Scorsese are once again squandered by many missteps to make the film utterly disappointing. Make no mistake in my judgment, this is a film to check out, whether as a resident cinephile or a family night out at a 3D showing. I just wish the far too often depressing aspects were expunged or channeled better with a more compelling main character.


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Two Brief (Very Brief) Reviews

I watch a lot of films every year and not every single one can be written up. It could be the general mediocrity of it, the forgetful premise and execution, or I just get busy and lose interest in reviewing it.

Here are two opening paragraphs for two August films that almost got the full treatment, only to settle with a short stab at them. Think of these as my take on Leonard Maltin's style of reviewing.


So, we finally come to the most heated film of the summer, sure to spill some blood and aggravate the many, many detractors. Shockingly, I felt that THE SMURFS wasn't the newest weapon to cripple human brain cells this year. Make no mistake, there is a whole lot of commercially-created crass shenanigans and stupidity to behold and tolerate. The few bright moments with the blue Belgian creatures are largely ruined by whiplash writing, bland shoehorned human characters, and set pieces designed to overflow with poop jokes.



Surprises do not come very often from the diluted products of Hollywood, especially with the many reboots, prequels, and unnecessary franchise extenders. But, when there are exceptions, they are spellbindingly good. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES isn't total perfection but its vastly interesting melodramatic storytelling, peculiar characterizations and its love of warping the expectations of its action finale make it the odd movie out of the recesses of August releases.


Monday, December 5, 2011

The Artist - Review

I love movies. I especially love movies about movies.  Also, I love movies about the movie-making business.  Trust me, there is clear difference the latter two.  So, of course THE ARTIST would be right up my lane. Except the lane was already taken over with multiple cinematic news and press, plastered with real-life and online ads, and a spoiler-riffic trailer before finally experiencing the film. The Weinstein Company wanted to sell it fast and hard and they certainly did, with their trademark pomp and circumstance.

Suffice to say, THE ARTIST is one glorious piece of pleasure for movie fans, thanks to the heavy gusto and guidance of writer/director Michel Hazanavicius.  He takes something which honestly isn't an original piece of work, telling a interconnecting plot of an actor and actress and their careers during the silent to sound film transition, and doesn't change or add anything new.  This would have been a detraction if it wasn't crafted to be just that and achieved greatly so.  The film is a giant love letter to old Hollywood films and sensibilities, carefully done both expertly and subtly to create one of the absolute best silent films since that illustrious era.

The silent film format may seem arbitrary or pure wankery for jaded and prejudiced viewers but it is pretty ingenuous why it was implemented.  We, as a willing traveler into this movie world, get to experience this golden era of Hollywood by being forced to share the mindset of its main character, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin).  Valentin is ego incarnate, a superstar who makes every moment, whether in his life or in his silent films, a continuous showboating performance.  Always thrilled but very much content with his current celebrity lifestyle, he laughs off the notion to let either of his double lives evolve any further once he "sees" an early take at a sound film.  After a horrible nightmare where sound crashes into his world, he flat-out refuses to change his attitude, thus dooming his career but more importantly his future well-being.

This nightmare sequence, which is one of the many great highlights of Hazanavicius' mastery, explicitly tells you why Valentin is scared to move with the times.  Once sound is introduced, everything and everyone is now acknowledged to be real.  He can't be a walking photo-op, a portrait of masculinity and a picture perfect movie star anymore.  He has to back it all up with words.  Sound also would ruin his current relationships, causing his beloved sidekick dog to be reduced to being only a pet and his passionless marriage to become the utter sham it truly is.  However, as foreshadowed perfectly throughout, the new sensation would amplify his beautiful dancing abilities, the only time he truly feels happy.  It's no surprise that his fun moments dancing up a storm always seem to be shared with one woman, the former extra he once bumped into later turned American sweetheart Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo).

Dujardin and Bejo are both exceptional in their roles.  Dujardin weaves Valentin through all of his emotions, but never forgetting to keep his self-esteem ever so high until the eventful rock bottom scene.  Bejo, on the other hand, magnanimously understands the silent film acting style, with her vivid eyes and facial and body melodrama, to such a degree I fear she might turn into a Norma Desmond.  Her best moment comes when she convinces you she is about to fall in love with Valentin's coat rack.  That's right, her acting is so good, she can carry a scene with a block of wood and turn into a love affair.  The supporting roles are filled with American actors, such as the always funny John Goodman as the studio head and Penelope Ann Miller as Valentin's distressed wife.  Sadly, none of them get much time to develop more, probably because Valentin's dog, a terrier named Uggy, steals the spotlight and the viewer's attention all the time.  If Andy Serkis justifiably deserves a special Oscar for his performance as an ape, one should also be given to Uggy for his performance.

I can not given enough praise for Hazanavicus' auteurship over this film.  He uses the silent film style to make many great in-jokes, an early scene with Valentin awaiting audience applause comes to mind, when he isn't recreating purposely cliche moments.  He also makes the film a fun little spot-the-movie-or-movie-star contest for film geeks and cinephiles, both in the plot and scene allusions.  With rambling too much, expect to see things ranging from SUNRISE to the life and times of Eric Von Stroheim.  Of course, everyone will at least notice its model use of A STAR IS BORN.

THE ARTIST is a genuinely magical film to watch.  The only problem I had with it was its confusing third act rush to the climax, which even for the sake of melodrama was overboard and hard to appreciate.  Even with this big error, I do believe with some repeated viewings that it will be surmonted with more glee and praise.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene - Review

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is a rubber-band, pulled ever so tightly to squeeze out every tear and chill out of a viewer with its exasperating tension. Miraculously for writer/director Sean Durkin, the band never breaks under the pressure. It falls limp during some scenes only to pull harder to make up for its shortcomings. It is a highly effective psychological horror film, where the boundaries of the human mind have been distorted and bent to make reality a constant fearful experience.

One of the most terrifying things about human understanding and logic is that anyone can accept physical/ mental abuse and regression on to themselves or others if they truly believe it and convey it is the right thing to do. This affliction is bestowed upon Martha, played by Elizabeth Olsen, who also sees herself as a Marcy May and a Marlene. As our prologue shows us, Martha is retreating from a seemingly cult-based environment in the Catskills, where the women wait after the men to eat and are piled into one room. She heads to town to call up her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) for help, only to start second-guessing her actions, especially after a close call at a diner. Once picked up and transported to the vacation home of Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), Martha's phobias and desires begin to heavily impact her current psyche, with her past "memories" at the farm and charged emotions manifesting and streamlined into her daily interactions with family members. Could it be that cult is coming after her or was it all a product of her endless imagination?

The film doesn't keep the balance of reality and memory in check, nor should it. The reason is that nothing can be believed to be the absolute truth. We are in the midst of a damaged mind, incapable of understanding if the horrors seen and experienced by Martha were willingly given to her by the cult and its leader Patrick, or if it is the product of nightmares and voices in her head. The movie even gives you many more options to think and look at it, including the possibility that everything was dreamt up after a long bad relationship with a boyfriend. Even if you suspend your disbelief in any way, that doesn't prevent the film from entering inside you and dropping terror-inducing poetry by Patrick of the beauties of fear and death or making you regret walking around at night, even with the lights on.

Not everything in the script can be original and scary. Though Paulson and Dancy are fine in their roles, it doesn't escape the fact that their characters are specifically designed to pad out the proceedings. Both as a counterpoint to the philosophies of Patrick and patronizing know-it-alls, the two have to be emotionally dull and insensitive in order to provoke Martha into further panic attacks instead of, you know, calling for professional help. When I heard the word "parties" from a conversation between the sisters about why the vacation house is so spacious, I just knew that there would be a misguided party scene later on, which the film does in fact. This first draft exercise of melodrama becomes a bigger annoyance since another horror film this year, DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, also had a British man married to an American woman, a subplot about a house project being taken over by the bank, and another ill-suited party with a unstable family member. At least that film had a portable psychologist come into the plot to judge the main character before the more heated moments.

Harsh as that problem is, it is nearly impossible for it to totally ruin the overall film. There are many very unpleasant experiences and frightening scares to behold, thanks to careful and beautiful cinematography, an editing scheme consisting mainly of long takes, and a chilling soundtrack that alternates between natural sounds to blaring alarms. Durkin even made sure to leave more quieter scares in the background and in some throwaway lines, such as the crosses on the farm and a talk about Patrick's children respectively. Elizabeth Olsen richly deserves her breakthrough performance and acclaim, playing Martha as a broken-down doll and an abyss of abhorrence. John Hawkes gives another fantastic acting accomplishment to the cult leader Patrick, a man who believably has the swagger and charm to woo a woman under his spell.

The key thing that makes this film great and a big deal-breaker for some is its conclusion. I won't spoil it, nor am I able to since it too can be taken any way you choose to see it as. If taken from a straight-forward approach, which most would, it is one hell of a gut punch and chilling to the core. Unfortunately, this idea makes the penultimate scenes before it come off a little goofy when you really think about it. Fridge logic aside, it's still a scary final note.


25 Days of Christmas Entertainment - Table of Contents

Since it is that time of the year again, I decided to re-link to my previous year's overview of Christmas Entertainment.

Below is the 25 entries that I wrote up in a series that I had fun doing in 2010, something that might show up again.

Cynical Christmas Movie Week

1. The Ref
2. In Bruges
3. Ernest Saves Christmas
4. Magic Christmas Tree
5. Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny
6. Elf Bowling: The Movie
7. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys

Christmas Wrapping Specials

8. Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers: "Alpha's Magical Christmas
9. He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special
10. G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero: "Cobra Claws Are Coming to Town"
11. Pac-Man: "Christmas Comes to Pac-Land"
12. The Simpsons: "Miracle on Evergreen Terrace"

Nickelodeon and Warner Bros Animation Specials

13. Doug: "Doug's Christmas Story"
14. Rugrats: "The Santa Experience"
15. Rocko's Modern Life: "Rocko's Modern Christmas"
16. Hey Arnold!: "Arnold's Christmas"
17. Invader Zim: "The Most Horrible X-Mas Ever"
18. Freakazoid!: "The Chip" and "In Arm's Way"
19. Batman: The Brave and the Bold: "Invasion of the Secret Santas!"

The Top Six

20. 52: "Week Thirty-Three"
21. Jiminy Cricket's Christmas and A Walt Disney Christmas
22. Mystery Science Theater 3000: "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians"
23. Mystery Science Theater 3000: "Santa Claus"
24. Mickey's Christmas Carol
25. Home Alone