Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Hitchcock Doesn't Go For the Jugular

Upon its announcement, Hitchcock immediately began to reserve its seats at the Kodak (um…. sorry, the Dolby) Theater. It’s a biopic with heavy pedigree in front of the camera. But leading up to its release there ended up being cracks in the road to the Oscars, including HBO released a film focusing on another aspect of the famous director’s career. But the most damning might just be the film itself. “Hitchcock” is a fun film, but for such a specific topic the film is all over the place.

It’s hard to tell exactly the right tone that director Sacha Gervasi is attempting to strike. There’s an off-kilter, dark comedy tone that comes through at times. But more times than not the material seems it would be better served by a darker, more serious tone to reflect the psychological effects that went on among the auteur and his cast. Black Swan screenwriter John McLaughlin also wrote Hitchcock, so we know he can go to the darker recesses of the mind when asked nicely.

The film revolves solely around the making of Psycho and when dealing with the movie making, the film is at its best. Despite an award worthy performance by Helen Mirren as wife Alma, the subplot of Hitch thinking his wife is cheating on him and his retreating into his mind for imaginary conversations with serial killer Ed Gein (whom Norman Bates is based) are time fillers and distractions from the main focus of the film. Perhaps because of these tangents, the film wraps up quickly upon the opening of “Psycho” with a few text slides before the closing credits serving to give proper closure.

Prior to its opening, Anthony Hopkins was the one dominating most awards talk. That has since quieted. If anyone has ever been unsure what the saying “chewing scenery” meant, you have to look no further that Hopkins’ performance here. He is a walking caricature with his over the top waddle to his over pronunciation while attempting to do get the director’s correct articulation.

Hitchcock offers a stellar supporting cast. Roles by Scarlett Johansson, as Janet Leigh, and Jessica Biel, as Vera Miles, are sorely underwritten. Biel suffers from barely any screen time, despite Miles and Hitchcock having a rocky history together that is summed up in a single monologue. Toni Collette, as Hitch’s long suffering secretary, does get a few good scenes. Yet, even she ends up as merely a background prop most of the time with an exacerbated look on her face. 

The most fun to be had during the film is the tongue-in-cheek opening and closing to the film that is a play on the old introductions the director offered during his television. It offers up a macabre look at what the film might have been, but the film doesn't follow through on its promise. Hitchcock is merely a skin deep puncture wound for a topic who always knew the best way to deliver fatal blows.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Move Along! No Scary Activity To See Here...

Horror franchises know how to exhaust an idea like no other genre. Whether it’s Saw with 6 sequels, Friday the 13th with 11 sequels/remakes/spin-offs, or Halloween with 9, it’s easy to see how people might get tired of seeing the same thing movie after movie. The newest series to enter into these dreaded waters is Paranormal Activity. With the release of Paranormal Activity 4 the series is showing its age and wearing thinner than bed sheet ghost costume.

When the original Paranormal Activity came out audiences were terrified with the inventive found footage film. With each of the subsequent films the mythology has grown. Along with the mythology, the films have been fun while offering some good scares. Now in its fourth year, the series has hit a road block. This time, the film deals with a family who take in a mysterious boy after his mother is hospitalized and strange things start happening.

This entry has even less plot than the previous films in the series, none of which ever really had that much plot. With a new family introduced here there isn’t much that can be done into add to the mythology of the series. In fact, at times this one goes straight in the face of what had previously been learned. By the time you get to the fourth entry in a horror series, can you name one that hasn’t contradicted itself?

More importantly, PA4 is just plain boring. The luster is off the series. The novelty is gone from the found footage abilities that the series has creatively woven into its storytelling. Furthermore, the formula of the films has worn thin. By now everyone knows there is going to be a slow build leading to a final few minutes that cause more teenage girls to scream than finding out Justin Bieber has herpes. Whereas the other films had some scares, this one isn’t able to conjure any up.

One of the things that the series has had above other found footage films is the acting. Paranormal Activity hires people who could be real actors. Actress Kathryn Newton is at the start of a promising career. She offers a character that allows the audience to get behind her, which is rare in these films.

If Paramount is smart they would make the next film the finale to the series.  In making the next film the finale one, the producers would have to offer answers to many of the series questions. They could really throw audiences for a loop by going outside of the found footage format. The series has reached the point where there isn’t much activity to put you on the edge of your seats.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Paperboy Doesn't Deliver

In 2009 Lee Daniels made a name for himself with a little movie called Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. The film was a huge smash at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to take home two Oscars that year. Even since, expectations have been high for his follow-up project. That film, The Paperboy has just been released into theaters and unfortunately, Oscar gold won’t be striking twice.

The Paperboy is a swampy mystery based on the book of the same name by Peter Dexter. Set in the late 1960s in the Deep South, Jack is a former collegiate swimmer who is now relegated to being a driver for his father’s newspaper. When his brother Ward is prompted to come home upon receiving a letter asking him to write an article her boyfriend's wrongful conviction, Jack is brought into to also be their driver while they investigate the convicted copy killer's case. In the process, Jack is swept up into an unrequited love for the woman and a intrigue filled journey.

The pulpy film has inexplicably assembled an all-star cast that includes Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, and John Cusack.  Each of the actors does well in their role, but it’s obvious that most are only onboard because of the cache that Daniels’ last film brought to this project. Kidman, who enjoys an indie film now and then, takes the biggest risk by losing all of her movie star glamour in the role of trashy Charlotte, girlfriend to imprisoned cop killer Hillary Van Wetter. She gets the showiest role that everyone will be talking about it afterwards. Conversely, McConaughey ends up being the biggest question mark of the film. He’s given a thankless role here that doesn’t give him much to do.

Despite having co-stars with higher wattage, the film belongs to Efron. Daniels has publicly come out that he was against casting the  High School Musical star initially. But onscreen there is a different story being told. The young actor seems to be a muse for the director, who looks to be infatuated right from the opening scenes. Efron spends half of his time partially naked in his underwear and more than once talks about masturbating.When it comes time for the big sex scene, however, Daniels only teases the audience before fading to black. Nevertheless, if you have ever had a crush on the heart throb, you’re going to want to watch this film on mute.

For the love of God, though, can Hollywood please put a moratorium on Macy Gray’s acting career? She is a weak link that is only further shown to be even weaker due to the stronger performances happening around her. While we are on the topic, can anyone explain what has happened to John Cusack's career? For someone who has a cult fanbase, he has, in recent years, seemingly done everything he can to turn people against him. Picking both bad movies and unlikable characters, Cusack always comes off as a combination of grumpy, pissy, and having a air of superiority to him. 

Daniels, who co-wrote the film with the novel’s author, leads the film through a winding road that never really leads anywhere. Most of the film’s plot points are able to be seen before they happen. The ending was changed somewhat from the book, but it still makes for an anti-climactic ending to an otherwise ho-hum film.

While The Paperboy is has slower burn than most thrillers that are released today, the film’s real Achilles heel is the same thing also brings it the most attention: director Daniels. In an attempt to overly stylize the film, Daniels ends up distracting the viewers in the process. In attempting to cover a lack of action in the film he throws in scenes meant to create controversy that don’t really have much point otherwise. The infamous scene where Kidman pees on Efron after a jellyfish attack and another scene where Kidman and Cusack pleasure themselves across the room from each other do nothing but perhaps make the audience uncomfortable.

Coming off of a film like Precious, perhaps there was no way that Daniels would have been able to live up to the hype. But The Paperboy seems like a step back for the filmmaker. It’s an indie movie you make that gets you notice before moving onto something bigger and better. At the same time, it’s also worrying that the final product came out the way it did because if the director ends up sabotaging a film by making it pulpier than is necessary, will he be able to succeed on a studio backed film? Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure; this “paperboy” just doesn’t deliver.

Monday, October 15, 2012

REVIEW: 666 Park Avenue

ABC’s heavily hyped new horror/soap 666 Park Avenue has now been on the air for three weeks. Despite the constant promotion the show debuted to disappointing numbers. What was seen as one of the most likely to succeed shows quickly saw a reversal of fortune. During its second week the numbers went down further to an unintentionally scary place and the coveted demo numbers dipped a little lower for this week’s episode. But the reason for the low numbers can easily be figured out when you realize that the show isn’t offering viewers what the commercials promised them.

The show’s basic premise is that a naïve Midwestern couple (Brothers and Sisters star David Annable and Charlie’s Angels star Rachael Taylor) comes to New York to make it big and in order for them to do so they become the managers of an upscale high rise building that is able to help make their dreams come true. What the couple doesn’t know is that the building’s owner (Terry O’Quinn) is some kind of evil (no one will say if he is actually Satan) that makes deals with the tenants. This is the type of building that welcomes new tenants, but rarely lets them move out. The cast is rounded out with the owner’s wife (Vanessa Williams), who may or may not be involved with his evil deeds, a couple living in the building that includes a husband with a wandering eye (Lipstick Jungle actor Robert Buckley), a psychic teenager, and a surly doorman (Erik Palladino).
If you took out the deals with the devil aspect of the show, you would be left with a night time soap that has been multiple times before. This horror aspect is a fresh twist, except it rarely involves any of the regular actors. Sure, there was a startling elevator attack (literally!) in the pilot. With the exception of O’Quinn most of the characters have steered clear of any spooky happenings. Instead, it’s the guest stars of the week, who viewers have never met – and most likely will never see again – that see all the bad stuff happen to them.  Perhaps if we had met them briefly in a previous episode to build up some kind of relationship or feelings with the character it would add stakes to their eventual demonic dilemma.

With a cast the size that “666 Park” currently has it could definitely afford to put some of them in danger, if not off one or two. As it stands Williams has been woefully underused and some of the characters have actually already been benched during entire episodes. But seriously, what’s a horror series without a few casualties? If Alfred Hitchcock could kill Janet Leigh in Psycho, then ABC can definitely kill Erik Palladino in this, right?

The production value on the show seems high and the actors are all more the capable to handle what they have been given.  It’s not to say that “666 Park Avenue” is bad, because quite frankly it’s not. But in a line-up that includes appointment television like Once Upon a Time and Revenge, “Park Avenue” needs to fix itself. The fixes are easy, but the producers need to cut the fat and tighten the vices on the writers.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Problem with "Girls"

HBO debuted two new TV shows last month. Of the two, Veep is actually the superior and higher rated show of the pair. But Girls has been the one getting all of the press. Everyone wants to talk about it, either to praise it – as many critics have – or to complain about the lack of diversity on the show.

 “Girls” follows four, well, girls in those awkward post-college years where you're old enough to know better but young enough not to care. It’s a tried and true formula. Nothing is groundbreaking necessarily here; four girls in New York and dealing with friendship, sex, and making their way in the world.

First there’s Hannah, played by show creator Lena Dunham, who has been living off of her parents while she chases the dream of writing a memoir and working as an unpaid intern. Her world is turned upside down when her parents cut her off, even refusing a deal of $1,100 a month for two years (a steal, I say. How could they ever refuse such an offer!). She is also sleeping with Adam. Next is Marnie, an anal retentive, put together girl who actually comes across as normal. She is played by Allison Williams. Marnie has been dating her boyfriend forever and is now in a rut. Then there is Jessa, the British accented trollup who rolls into town pregnant and having none of her shit together. Lastly, and most clichéd, is Shoshanna, played by Zosia Mamet, who is basically Charlotte from Sex and the City without the fully developed neuroses.

It should be noted that with Dunham having written many of the episodes alone, and a cast that comes from such pedigree as to include Williams, the daughter of NBC News Anchor Brian Williams, and Mamet, the offspring of David Mamet and actress Lindsay Crouse, there isn’t a whole lot of “average, normal” stuff on set. With no one fully in touch with the real world, how can the show be expected to show real life?

Allison Williams stars as Marnie in "Girls".
Critics have jumped on the “Girls” bandwagon as if it was an open bar at an AA meeting. But, most of the critics working in media today tend to be old enough to be these girls’ parents. They are out of touch with what it’s actually like to be 24, so for them to claim any kind of realism is nothing more than wishful thinking.

The media are trying to say that this is how girls are today and that it depicts a realer version of “Sex and the City.” I hate to tell everyone, but this is “SATC” through the eyes of a hipster. Are there girls that are like this? Yes, but not the majority of women in that demographic. At least with the previous HBO comedy, it was aspirational for women. They could watch the show and escape to their dreams about getting a happily ever after with their Mr. Big. Here, “Girls” should be shown as a blue print for rethinking your life choices if you closely relate to any of the characters (save, perhaps, Marnie).

The girls from “SATC” may have been living more glamorous lives than the average person, they were also fun, likeable, and actually relatable. I mean, how many times have you seen your girlfriend or one of her friends proclaim “I’m a CARRRRRIEE.” (p.s. women should never proclaim they are a Samantha unless they are looking to get gangbanged). The quartet on “Girls” are hard to relate to and more than anything else they are narcissistic and don’t evoke any kind of sympathy. Dealing with issues like getting an STD or an abortion are big issues to have in the first three episodes. As in real life, the way you handle big issues show more about the character than a season worth of silly story lines.

Zosia Mamet stars as Shoshanna.
People have complained about the lack of diversity on the show. The same was said about Friends. Apparently on TV, New York is filled with neighborhoods of only white people. It’s something that we have come to accept – again, not reality, but it is unfortunately TV reality. It should be noted that Dunham has cast “Community” star Donald Glover in season two in an attempt to quell the criticism.

Another chief complains has been about Dunham’s weight. Now, here’s the thing. She is an average sized woman, er, girl, but average sized girls don’t write sex scenes to be viewed by a million people for themselves. Of the quartet, she is the only one constantly being shown having sex and not wearing clothes. Any criticism that has come was brought on by the star herself for putting herself in that position. Williams's character has a sexy scene, doggy style, and is in her underwear the entire time. If all of the actresses were doing it, then people wouldn’t be as vocal about her flesh.

But the most damning problem with “Girls” is that it just isn’t that funny. In the first few episodes Marnie has a few decent lines, especially when annoyed about one of the coven being late for her own abortion, but most of the show’s quirks are meant for a very specific audience. More than finding myself laughing, by the end of the second episode I wanted to hunt Dunham down and punch in the face repeatedly. With the exception of Williams, who looks to have a long career once the show is over, the girls are annoying and unsympathetic. They aren’t funny, even an OMG type of way.

I’ll be the first to admit that there are a lot of things wrong with my generation. There are self-entitlement issues, inflated egos, and many other things that were caused from growing up in a booming economy during the 90s when parents began trying new age techniques for childrearing that included never saying no to a child. But if this is the legacy that people are going to have for my generation then it is time to just hang up the towel and call it a day.