Liu plays Sadie Blake, a writer for an alternative weekly in Los Angeles who investigates the Goth subculture and ends up with way more than she bargained for: she falls prey to a band of vampires and is left for dead but wakes up in a morgue, neither dead nor alive and looking for revenge. References to Kill Bill are unmistakeable: being boxed in while still alive-sort of for Sadie- (the Bride’s coffin in vol. 2 becomes Sadie’s morgue drawer), having a wise mentor and benefactor (whereas the Bride had Hattori Hanzo in vol. 1, Sadie is initially guided by a shadowy character played by Julio Oscar Mechoso), and also gradually eliminating those responsible for what happened. Also noteworthy are Gutierrez’s girlfriend, the beautiful Carla Gugino, as silky-voiced vampire temptress Eve, Allan Rich as a wheelchair-bound underling of sorts, whose perversions bring about the creepy opening scene, and Michael Chiklis as Detective Rawlins, who wants to find out who murdered his daughter at a party that was a trap set up by vampire leader Bishop (James D’Arcy). Cameos by Nick Lachey as a small-time car thief and Marilyn Manson as a bartender add a few self-effacing touches of humour.
Very far from the breezy, cheeky girl power of Charlie’s Angels and the dull, dehumanizing emptiness of Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, Liu is absolutely remarkable here, revealing a depth of emotions rarely hinted at in her previous work: her performance is harrowing, especially in the overpass scene and after her thirst for blood brings an untimely end to a hitchhiker, but she always keeps an air of deadly, mournful resolution. That the central character is so well-drawn helps make “Rise: Blood Hunter” a fine example of psychology-based, above-average horror, but it kind of hides that the film is fairly modest in scope and that secondary characters like Bishop, Rawlins and especially the mentor are not as strongly defined. The final shot is somewhat disappointing (although it plays fair with what we’ve learned about Sadie), but the film remains a stylish and very interesting offering that deserves to find an audience.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay
Following on the premise that villains can realize the difference between right and wrong, a notion that was touched upon with Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2, the current movie wants to explore the shades of grey within both superheroes and villains, but its message about forgiveness and “having the choice to do what’s right” is sappy, simplistic and deeply questionable in light of the unclear portrayal of small-time crook and possibly cold-blooded murderer Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), who turns into Sandman when he stumbles into a molecular test site while trying to hide from the police. The Sideways actor is not to blame here, even faring quite decently, but the screenplay by director Sam Raimi, his brother Ivan and Alvin Sargent has radical changes in how we should view his character (the final flashback about his involvement in the carjacking that ends with Uncle Ben shot dead is wholly unsatisfying on many levels).
Let’s rewind a little. The thrust of the story is manifold, but complications really begin when Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire), spurred by his huge popularity, allows Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) to recreate the upside down kiss he shared with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) in the first film. Understandably, Peter Parker now finds himself in the doghouse in a major way with the lovely MJ. Later, some black alien goo that came out of a meteor bonds with Peter, turning him into in a meaner, arrogant and unpredictable Spider-Man, complete with jet black outfit. Peter also humiliates competing photographer Eddie Brock Jr. (an irritating Topher Grace, but it’s not like I expected otherwise) by revealing him as a fraud, but that will come back to haunt him when Brock returns as the ferocious Venom and forges an alliance with Sandman. And then there’s the matter of Peter’s former best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco), who swore to avenge the death of his father, which he believes was brought upon by Peter as Spider-Man. Lots on the table, people. On the supporting side, comically rude editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) is once again barking orders at the Daily Bugle, although he isn’t as amusing this time around (we don’t see him that often); the beautiful Elizabeth Banks also returns as his secretary.
Maguire, Dunst and Franco have to do the heavy lifting by injecting some drama in there, and they succeed about as well as they can in a film where a lot of scenes, like the one where the hero rescues Gwen Stacy from a crane-sliced building, serve no real purpose other than showing just how much money there was for CGI. The bit where Peter gets all cocky and preens around Manhattan breaking some dance moves is just weird and silly, but Maguire remains excellent in his signature role while Dunst gains our sympathy with a winning balance of resilience and humanity. There’s nothing, however, that brings to mind the weight lifted from the hero’s shoulders in Spider-Man 2 when he decided he would be Spider-Man no more, nor the exhilaration we felt when he decided he would be Spider-Man, once more. The closest we get here to that kind of emotional relevance has to do with Franco’s Harry, whose role is expanded with a good measure of success. Parallel to the love story between Peter and Mary Jane, the Spider-Man films also chart the tortured friendship between Peter and Harry, ultimately revealing the enduring power of that friendship. Harry’s amnesia storyline after an early battle with Spider-Man as the New Goblin is not as much a cop-out as you’d expect, and their second fight, especially the outcome for Harry, gives us one of the few arresting moments of the film and imbues a final, four-way showdown with added meaning.
The second movie had a lot of depth, notably stemming from the wise words of Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), “with great power comes great responsibility”, and it concluded with Mary Jane accepting the perils that may come with having a superhero as her boyfriend. The ending of “Spider-Man 3” is a decent attempt at showing the heavy cost of that dual life, but it’s overshadowed by the unconvincing message I wrote about at the start of this review. And while it definitely suffers when compared to its predecessor, the third outing is also missing sizzle and clarity as a stand-alone offering, ending up just OK when it could have spun a much tighter web.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay
The opening sequence begins with a surreptitious visit to a hotel, as Crawford discovers his wife has been cheating on him, and concludes with the previously mentioned act of violence at the couple’s luxurious house. The extent of the premeditated nature of Crawford’s actions is first shown when the cop who enters the house to arrest him turns out to be the same guy his wife Jennifer (Embeth Davidtz) was having an affair with. I understand the cop’s role is not supposed to be the focus here, but Billy Burke does the best he can with a part that feels truncated and underwritten, especially in light of what happens to him in the second act. The main battle of wits is introduced when the task of prosecuting Crawford is given to Willy Beachum, a hotshot assistant district attorney with his foot in the door at a high-stakes corporate law firm. Played with understated arrogance and a hint of self-doubt by the excellent Ryan Gosling, Beachum figures the case is an open-and-shut one, given that a weapon was found and a confession has been signed, but we know it can’t be that easy when the actor in front of you once played a brilliant psychiatrist turned serial killer and cannibal, possibly with some nice Chianti. When Anthony Hopkins flashes that trademark wink, you know you’re in for quite a battle of the minds.
Also of relevance are David Strathairn as the district attorney and Rosamund Pike (Pride and Prejudice) as Nikki, a corporate lawyer whose affections for Willy are entirely dependent on whether or not he does exactly what she expects, personal feelings or moral concerns be damned. She’s dropped rather suddenly from the storyline, but let’s just say she makes her portrayal of Miranda Frost in Die Another Day look cuddly and warm in comparison. I also want to mention Nikki’s dad, a thoughtful judge played by Bob Gunton (Dead Silence): he doesn’t get to say much, but one thing he tells Willy about paving the way to justice becomes the film’s moral anchor.
Hopkins’ performance may remind some of his work in Silence of the Lambs, in the sense that he’s another character trying to tip the scales in his favour through cunning behaviour. As Hannibal Lecter he projected the image of a dangerous madman who was ironically very much in control; here he plays a man trying at first to establish a friendly relationship with Willy, calling him “old sport” and things like that. Choosing to defend himself, Crawford shows no worry whatsoever about the possible outcome of the judicial process, doodling in court like a bored high school kid and poking fun at Willy wearing a tuxedo, humorous touches that feel out of place. The screenplay from Glenn Gers and Daniel Pyne is quite uneven, while the workmanlike direction from Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear) rarely brings a sense of elevated importance to what’s going on. Early in the film, at some lawyers’ schmoozing party, Nikki introduces herself to Willy by asking him whether he’s a shark, with a look that says she does enjoy snacking on smaller fish herself. This is echoed, artificially, when the pernicious Crawford tells Willy that his weak spot, his fracture point if you will, is that he’s a minnow. Based upon the evidence, being a minnow is the morally responsible choice, but the way the film comes at that conclusion is not especially enthralling.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay
Laden with atmosphere and a sustained sense of dread, the film is constructed in such a way that you spend most of it on the edge of fear rather than knee-deep in it, but it does have a few moments that are flat-out scary. None as terrifying as that one in The Messengers where the stairs start shaking and ghoulish arms try to pull Kristen Stewart into the ghastly Beyond, but scary stuff nonetheless. The story opens with young couple Jamie and Lisa (Ryan Kwanten and Laura Regan) about to enjoy a quiet evening in their apartment. There’s a knock on the door, but nobody’s in the hallway; instead, there is a coffin-like package containing a ventriloquist’s dummy. Jamie’s not amused, because where he’s from, a hamlet by the name of Ravens Fair, finding such a dummy is a bad omen: there was this old lady ventriloquist, Mary Shaw, whose ghost, the legend goes, is looking for revenge on those who killed her and ripped out her tongue after a young boy went missing. From that point on, the movie gradually unveils how the sins of a vigilante mob and the dark side of this outcast, obsessive old lady created something deeply evil whose search for vengeance has echoed through the generations. After Lisa is gruesomely killed, Jamie goes back to his hometown to get to the bottom of the legend, which includes visiting his wheelchair-bound father (Bob Gunton), who he hasn’t talked to for a long time, and the elderly town mortician played by Michael Fairman.
Of great importance to the atmosphere is the dummy called Billy, who soon validates Jamie’s uncomfortable feeling. The doll is seen fairly often, but sparingly enough to maintain a foreboding intrigue. Suffice it to say that it’s devilishly effective in its function as a conduit, if you will, for the spirit of Mary Shaw. The filmmakers have ingeniously chosen the less is more approach, actually going one step further: the arrival of her ghost is signified by sound vanishing into complete silence, a very clever trick that really grabs your attention. Clouser’s score has a Halloween-like ring to it at first, but it evolves into a first-rate effort that at times sounds like his masterful theme from the final moments of Saw. Whannell has written a wicked script, some of the highlights being an elaborate flashback to a Mary Shaw/Billy performance during Ravens Fair’s heyday, in an opulent theatre built on a lake, and the initial glimpse of her ghost at a motel. Billy is not scary in a visceral sense, but there’s something creepy about him. We’re far from Puppet Master territory here folks: there’s no Blade or Tunneler looking to slice you up or drill a hole into you; Billy’s not a perpetrator but a sign of bad things to come. He has a look vaguely similar to that of Hugo in Dead of Night (1945), the eerie Ealing production that Wan has mentioned as one of his favourite horror films ever, while Edward’s ornate mansion and the lake-built theatre are nods to gothic Hammer films.
As the lead, Kwanten expands his range after a supporting role in Flicka. He may not show great depth yet, but he has a very adequate intensity while Fairman is suitably weary as the mortician. Although briefly seen, Judith Roberts is chilling as Mary Shaw and Amber Valletta is decent in a small but important role as the new young bride of Jamie’s father. The only character I had a problem with is Donnie Wahlberg’s nagging cop, but in the end Wan has made a very solid follow-up to Saw, focusing on a vengeful supernatural being instead of a moralizing killer setting up vicious death traps. Visually and story-wise, there are recurrent motifs of secrecy and unveiling in both movies, but to elaborate on them would be to play spoiler. As far as the ending goes, the only thing I’ll say is that it ends with a nifty, twist-induced bang. “Dead Silence” was not screened in advance for critics, but true horror fans will know it’s out there and have a good chance of being pleasantly surprised.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay
Dudley (Macy), Doug (Tim Allen), Woody (John Travolta) and Bobby (Martin Lawrence) are weekend warriors who hang on to their idealized freedom by riding their bikes around suburban Cincinnati, calling themselves the Wild Hogs (with the cool logo sewn on the back of their leather coats by Doug’s wife, played by Jill Hennessy). They all have some kind of dissatisfaction in their lives: Doug’s son thinks Dad isn’t cool enough, Dudley’s badly intimidated by women, Bobby’s henpecked by his wife (Tichina Arnold) and Woody is facing divorce and bankruptcy, although he doesn’t reveal that information when he talks the guys into hitting the open road and “putting some real miles on those bikes”. The Hogs then embark on a West Coast-bound, male-bonding trip that’s sure to run into at least a little trouble. The trek officially begins, if you will, after a collective cell phone thrashing, where Dudley furthers his character’s knee-slapping tendency to create a mess out of every situation he’s involved in. Macy has done hapless before, but as far as I know the talented character actor has never approached such unbridled zaniness, and he’s a riot. Belly laughs come early and often, notably but not exclusively from his questionable motorcycle control (something as basic as fist-tapping turns into an adventure with a strong chance of bodily harm and property damage).
The script from Brad Copeland, whose experience is in episodic TV, sputters in spots but is largely effective at creating humorous situations. The scene at the campsite, where the Hogs wake up after sleeping with suspicious proximity on a mattress, leads to a hysterically misinformed assessment from a jealous cop played by John C. McGinley (the double entendres from Bobby & co. had me doubled over in laughter). And when the guys take it all off for a swim in a creek, what do you think the odds are that an All-American, wholesome family will show up at exactly that moment? The Hogs’ trip runs into more complications outside the small town of Madrid, New Mexico, where the boys run afoul of a biker gang led by a sullen-looking Ray Liotta. This leads to the more juvenile and least effective parts of the plot, but hey, it’s still nice to hear Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive”.
The cast is virtually guaranteed to bring in huge box office. Allen has been in some of the most inane comedies known to mankind, but his Joe Somebody persona works well here. Lawrence has also been in some idiotic stuff, but his swagger wins me over more often than not. The closest thing to a miscast is Travolta, but to be fair the role is not exactly fleshed out. Taken together, the Hogs have an easygoing rapport and a fine chemistry, making them a likable bunch. There’s a perfunctory romantic subplot between Dudley and bar owner Maggie (the lovely Marisa Tomei), but Tomei has so much warmth, charm and energy (see among others Untamed Heart, The Perez Family or even something like Anger Management) that it almost makes up for it; there’s a moment where she compliments his qualities that wouldn’t be out of place in a much more thoughtful film. And you gotta love the late cameo from an Easy Rider, who brings peace to Madrid by serenely telling everybody what riding’s all about. “Wild Hogs” is certainly not highbrow; but it’s a smooth ride with plenty of good laughs.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay
Set in present-day Bucharest (and considerably more flattering to the Romanian capital than the brief glimpse we saw in another recent film shot there, Ils), the story begins with a prologue about werewolves being persecuted: as a child, Vivian witnessed vigilantes hunting and killing her family in the wilds of Colorado. We move forward 10 years to Bucharest, where Vivian works at a chocolate shop and lives with her aunt Astrid (Katja Riemann with 95 % of the eyeliner budget). Contrary to a trouble-making group of her cousins called the Five, fronted by the hot-headed Rafe (a solid Bryan Dick), Vivian has always been very reluctant to accept her dual nature. The leader of the pack, Gabriel (Olivier Martinez, coming close to caricature but avoiding it with restraint), has chosen her as his future wife, but she wants none of it, especially not after she meets Aiden, the previously mentioned American meat-boy, in a church where he was drawing wolves. He has a fascination with the “loups-garous”, and much like her he’s looking to escape a path his family chose for him, so their bond develops out of this shared need to simply follow their hearts.
The film works best when it shows these two young people in love, out and about in Bucharest (the part where she shows him “the best view of the whole city” is simply beautiful, a lovely setting for their gothic-flavoured romance). And for a while, there is poignancy in the story of these star-crossed lovers and how it impacts the werewolf clan (especially the scene where Gabriel mourns a key background character he sent to tell Aiden to leave town and never come back, as well as the painful encounter that follows between Vivian and Aiden). Expertly handled by von Garnier, these moments feel as if they might take the film to a superior level, but as we get closer to the finish line the distance from the source novel becomes more blatant, notably through a jarring shootout sequence that knocks the movie down to no more than a small notch above average. That said, the movie has decently drawn characters and an attractive look. The pack transforms into actual wolves rather than hirsute beasts on two feet, which is a welcome change from most of the werewolf movies. The change from human to wolf has a seamless, ethereal quality that I initially considered as incongruously torment-free, but that I came to see as vaguely dreamlike and quite elegant.
If you haven’t seen von Garnier’s previous two features, I strongly recommend that you mosey on down to the Boite noire, folks, they’re very much worth your while. Strongly female-centric, Bandits (1997) and Iron-Jawed Angels (2004) revealed a major talent with a very dynamic style supporting heartfelt narrative threads. The first film is a touching travelogue of sorts about an all-girl rock band on the lam, with some innovative touches approaching a blissful surrealism, while the second is a captivating, thoroughly modern treatment of the American suffragette movement in the 1910s. Bruckner, who efficiently gives Vivian a gloomy and guarded demeanour, has a fabulous blend of looks and talent (witness her wonderful performances in Blue Car and last year’s Dreamland). She has good chemistry with Dancy (the prince in Ella Enchanted), and that’s part of the reason why it’s frustrating to see the film devolve into something conventional in the way that it does, muzzling to some degree the rich material found in the book. “We’re lost souls, Vivian… but at least we’re lost together”, Astrid says at one point. There’s a whole other movie to be found in those heavy words, and while it’s fairly good as it is, “Blood & Chocolate” would have benefited by pursuing that darker vein.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay
1. Rocky Balboa: what a splendid farewell to the ultra-resilient fighter from South Philly. Sylvester Stallone has gone the distance one final and majestic time with the American icon he introduced in 1976. Outstandingly engaging and well written (the dialogue is heartfelt, spirited and resonant), Rocky Balboa is much more than a boxing movie: it’s a stirring film about the passage of time, the deeply felt need to address the fire still burning within and also the nursing of old wounds. Always dignified and often very moving, the film beautifully caps the cinematic odyssey of a truly classic American character.
2. Flicka: a family film of rare quality, beautifully depicting the wide open spaces of the American West within a touching story about a girl and her horse. Every character is well defined and portrayed in this glowing example of family entertainment that lovingly puts forward the virtues of freedom and following your heart.
3. Hostel: a masterful horror film, with a heavy subtext that was overlooked by many of its detractors. There are many shots and scenes of tremendous impact, like the extended sequence where Paxton passes out at the club or the standoff between Paxton and Natalya at the abandoned factory. Eli Roth’s latest initially seems to be an extreme version of the Hell that awaits the sinner, but it’s also a haunting look at far-from-home anxiety and a ruthless indictment of American bullying, arrogance and imperialism. Roth uses xenophobia, desperate poverty in certain countries and the creepiest possible extent of human exploitation to create a powerful horror masterpiece.
4. Hollywoodland: a superior script, in-depth character studies and amazing performances from Ben Affleck and Adrien Brody, among others, carry this meticulously paced, always captivating film about the life and death of George Reeves.
5. The Descent: a brutally efficient horror movie. Six women on a caving trip have to fight terrifying humanoid predators deep within an uncharted system, with disastrous results. Neil Marshall’s bleak but inspired film makes us feel the despair-and fighting spirit- of the characters with non-stop intensity right up to the shocking finale, whichever one you prefer.
6. Down in the Valley: this is a mesmerizing film that constantly keeps you on the edge with its underlying sense of looming danger. David Jacobson’s contemporary western has a fine balance of visual poetry, deadly violence, emotional turmoil and understated nostalgia.
7. The Painted Veil: a very elegant love story set in 1920s China, the film carefully develops and reveals the emotional complexity of its characters, resulting in a timeless romantic tale full of tenderness and humanity. With magnificent scenery and wonderful performances from Naomi Watts and Ed Norton.
8. Ils: a nerve-wracking experience that at times awakens the same kind of paralyzing fear as the Blair Witch Project, with a brilliantly misleading touch of the haunted house subgenre and a chilling revelation based on true events.
9. Bobby: a poignant film that pays great respect to the values of fairness and equality espoused by Robert Kennedy. Emilio Estevez paints a heartfelt, if achingly idealistic, portrait of a time and place in American history, with well-chosen newsreel footage and stirring Kennedy speeches contributing greatly to the film’s impact.
10. United 93: Paul Greengrass forgoes sensationalism to create a profoundly respectful memorial to the victims of the flight, and by extension to all the victims of 9/11. Even though we know the outcome, the film is incredibly tense, powerful and heartbreaking as we realize we’re watching the final moments of these people’s lives.
1. The Benchwarmers Hollywood turns out a lot of depressingly stupid discount bin filler, but this was truly awful.
2. La vie secrète des gens heureux: starts off very interesting but turns out to be depressing, cynical, bitter and extremely shallow.
3 (tie). Saw III and Black Christmas: two of the absolute worst horror films I’ve ever seen. Saw III is a disgusting, tasteless and grotesque film, while Black Christmas is a major misfire on basically every level.
4. Turistas: There’s nothing scary, suspenseful or surprising about this inept and tedious horror thriller, as pale a comparison as there can be to Hostel.
5. Ultraviolet: an emotionally impenetrable mess, with vacuous dialogue, lifeless action scenes and a thoroughly disjointed plot.
Even if it’s defended as counter-programming, “hip” or whatever else you want to call it, I fail to see how it can be a good idea to release a horror movie on Christmas Day, much less a resoundingly bad one like the “Black Christmas” remake. I know there have been recent precedents (Darkness in 2004, Wolf Creek last year), but at least those weren’t based on any holiday. The new version of Bob Clark’s 1974 thriller, considered by some to be the first slasher film, will work out your neck muscles with all the head shaking generated by its half-hearted plot, silly or stupid dialogue, choppy editing, ludicrous kill scenes and generalized absence of logic, architectural and otherwise.
Clark’s film isn’t spectacular, but it does have crafty shots from the killer’s point of view, disturbing phone calls, fleshed-out characters and a creepy “evil will carry on” ending (anyone interested in Clark’s career should check out the latest Rue Morgue magazine for a fabulous interview and recap of his work). The new movie, desperate to reach 80-something minutes, tacks on a puzzling, violent and perverted back-story for Billy, making him an unwanted child who was locked in the attic for years (?!?). Billy’s cold-hearted mother never loved him, killed his real dad, raised a daughter with another man and gave her the attention he never had, so one day he got mad and killed his mom and her new lover. This is all told through one mediocre flashback upon another. In the present day, Billy escapes the asylum and goes back to his childhood home, now housing a sorority (?!?), presumably not to launch into a Christmas carol. Michelle Trachtenberg (EuroTrip), Katie Cassidy (When a Stranger Calls), Lacey Chabert (Mean Girls) and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Bobby) are among the girls who have to suffer through the indignities of the script. From that point, it’s the usual game of who will survive the longest. Bored by the many ineptitudes spouted by the characters, I started looking at the film as a Royal Rumble and rooted for favourites to stay alive a little longer, but even that approach led to disappointment.
Most everybody looks like they can’t wait to get out of this doomed, won’t-be-on-the-resume project. Andrea Martin, the quietest sorority sister in the original, is painful to watch and looks downright embarrassed as the house mother, while Oliver Hudson is the token boyfriend that gets angry so he can be a suspect, sort of. And even though she’s certainly not alone, Kristen Cloke has nothing to work with as an older sister of one of the girls (does the tone of dark eye shadow means she’s snobbish?). The film is directed and written by Glen Morgan, who gave us the interesting oddity that was Willard in 2003. No scene in his “Black Christmas” comes remotely close to the virtuoso sequence in Willard where the cat is left to fend for himself in a house full of rats, and the film fails to commit to a specific tone: at no point is it self-conscious enough to be amusing or dark enough to be disquieting.
The large house (as well as the solid screenplay) of the 1974 film at least kept alive a suspension of disbelief that allowed you to think someone could indeed hide in the attic. Nothing like that here: there’s no feeling of time or place about the house. Billy seems to pop up at various unsuspected locations at will, and one specific way in which he indulges his voyeuristic tendencies is too ludicrous for words. The fixation on eyeballs could have worked in small doses, but it turns out it’s just an easy license for a few gory shots, none of them remarkable. The film is by no means worth spending your hard-earned money on, but I’ll be fair and mention a few moments that stand out positively: the first shot of Billy’s peeping eye, which is a nice nod to the most iconic shot of Clark’s movie, and the neat ending (let’s just say for all the deaths he caused, in the end it’s no Merry Christmas for Billy either). Small comforts, people. One of these good moments is over in the blink of an eye, while the other means the ordeal is over and you can go back to more interesting things in your life. At some point, the security guard at the mental hospital tells an especially depressing Santa that “this ain’t no place for Santa Claus. Not on Christmas.” That much I know: any room showing that movie ain’t no place for the discerning moviegoer, not on any day.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay
Jean-François Tremblay :
“Don’t let anything in… or out”, Larry Daley is ominously told as he begins his new job as the night watchman at the beginning of “Night at the Museum”. Played by Ben Stiller in a perfect match of performer and project, Larry’s a loosely defined dreamer (he had big plans for snapper lights, but clap-activated ones took away his thunder), a sort of wacky inventor-lite. He’s a striver who wants to become an achiever, looking for a job that’ll raise his profile with his family. His ex-wife Erica (the very attractive Kim Raver) wants Larry to find a job that will bring a more stable environment for their son, who they have joint custody of since the divorce. Erica’s engaged to some hotshot bond trader (Paul Rudd) whom, we’re led to believe, young Nicky sees as a more inspiring choice for a role model.
During his first night on duty, Larry realizes the job entails more than a cursory glance at the exhibits: when night falls at the Museum of Natural History, everybody and everything literally comes to life to cause varying degrees of trouble or go about their business like it’s the most normal thing in the world. Lewis and Clark argue about which way to go alongside Sacagawea, a young Shoshone woman who helped them in their westward journey; the Civil War is being fought; Attila the Hun and his warriors roam the corridors and Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) offers words of guidance. A talking Easter Island head wants bubble gum, the lions in the African pavilion are in a foul mood and the mighty T-Rex wants to play fetch the bone. In the miniature displays, a Roman general and an excitable cowboy with a railroad crew (Steve Coogan and Owen Wilson) are on conflicting paths of expansion.
Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs play the museum’s old night watchmen being replaced by Larry. Their roles are quite secondary (and for me, pretty much laugh-free), but their attempt to steal a rejuvenating Egyptian tablet allows for hilarious visuals involving the figurine-sized Octavius and Jedidiah. As they experience a “hurricane” after they’ve punctured a van’s tire (with Octavius hysterically screaming “Save yourself!”), Levy cuts to great comic effect to a larger shot of the van looking completely still and unaffected. There’s also comic gold (and a vintage Stiller scene) in an escalating slap fight between Larry and a treacherous capuchin monkey named Dexter, and don’t miss the fake belly laugh from the stuffy director (Ricky Gervais) when he orders Larry to get things under control.
There’s a vague threat about the museum’s residents turning to dust if they find themselves outside and are not back in at a certain time. We see that happen once, to a wandering Neanderthal, and the scene is played and shot earnestly. I would have loved to see this restraining premise explored further and more clearly. There’s also no sense that Nick really feels let down by his dad. The early scenes between father and son feature Nicky either saddled with dialogue that sounds way too grown-up for his years or looking just too sad for the situation (the disconnect in their relationship is sketchy and rather blown out of proportion; Larry is no absentee dad and there isn’t any kind of addiction, abuse or neglect that would pose a real threat to anyone’s well-being).
“Night” is directed by Shawn Levy (Just Married, The Pink Panther ’06) from a screen adaptation by Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant, itself based on a children’s book by Croatian author and illustrator Milan Trenc. The story’s setting is certainly a treasure chest of ideas for interaction between the exhibits, and a great opportunity for showing a lot of people and creatures (whenever hell is breaking loose all around Larry, there’s always some jungle animal taking a gentle stroll in the background, undisturbed and unthreatening). By and large, the filmmakers use the museum really well in setting up madcap action scenes. What I also want to point out is that in the middle of that, the film offers a commendable message about developing a thirst for knowledge. On a smaller level this comes into play with Larry hitting the library to know more about the museum’s rowdy population, and it’s shown on more extensively with the gorgeous tour guide (Carla Gugino) who’s writing a book on Sacagawea. The film takes a little while to find its footing, but when it does it emerges as cheerful, upbeat and quite enjoyable.
What a wonderful surprise! I went into the theatre backwards, excepting yet another crappy family flick, with one of my least favorite movie stars to make it worse. But what do you know, not only is this a delightful popcorn movie, Ben Stiller is really good in it. I never found him to be a bad actor, I actually love him when he’s playing a real character as he does here, instead of a one-note caricature (re: “Zoolander”) or a perpetually humiliated/infuriated proxy (re: “Meet the Parents”). Here, he’s instantly endearing as a divorced father who can’t hold a job or even an apartment, which is particularly painful because he can see he’s disappointing his son. Corny? A little bit, but no more than your average ’80s Spielberg, Dante or Zemeckis blockbuster, which is undeniably what Shawn Levy is going for here.
And, I don’t want to gloat, but I totally called this! Just from watching his first two scrappy little comedies (“Big Fat Liar”, with Paul Giamatti and Amanda Bynes, and “Cheaper by the Dozen”), I could sense he had that crowd-pleasing quality and even proclaimed him the “best working director of middlebrow family movies”. Now that he’s been given a canvas as large as his imagination, allowing to create delirious pastiches of historic, fantasy and adventure cinema, he delivers a wildly entertaining ride with a winning old-fashioned spirit, cleverly used special effects and an all-star cast that never misses a beat. Kids will love the animal mayhem and the bickering of Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan, while older moviegoers will savour every line delivery of Ricky Gervais and the rowdy, gloriously non-nostalgic Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs.
I’m telling you, if anyone should have hated this, it’s me, but I had a great time from start to end. This isn’t a masterpiece like “Back to the Future” or “E.T.”, but it would be at home on the same marquee as, say, “Gremlins”, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”.
You know your movie is flying low on the radar when it’s Sunday morning and there are no reviews of it on Metacritic, and you know it’s getting trashed when the nine reviews over at Rotten Tomatoes come to an average of less than one star (allow me to tip my hat to Elizabeth Weitzman of the New York Daily News and Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times for breaking out of the pack). While undistinguished and mostly lowbrow, Bob Odenkirk’s “Let’s Go to Prison” still delivers enough funny moments to stun gun its way to the above rating.
There’s no redemption or atonement at the conclusion of this movie. Neither of the two main characters cares in the least about redeeming himself or considering the error of his ways, but what can you expect from what is described, rather accurately, as a revenge comedy?
John Lyshitski (Dax Shepard) is a regular over at Rossmore State Penitentiary, so much in fact that he knows the guards by name and asks for his old duds instead of new ones upon arrival. As we learn through John’s narration, he’s been harbouring a grudge against the judge responsible for starting his pattern of repeated incarceration (John’s first crime was stealing the Publishers’ Clearing House van and trying to cash the giant check when he was eight). Wanting revenge on the man but finding out he just passed away, he decides to target the judge’s pampered son, Nelson Biederman IV (Will Arnett), framing him for a robbery then letting himself get caught for some random crime, to make sure Nelson experiences the “full” prison treatment down at Rossmore.
Some of the best laughs of the film are in those early sequences. The robbery that isn’t one has Nelson running like a madman through a drugstore with the owners, an old Chinese couple, reacting in hysterical ways, interpreting the mayhem as a junkie attack and bemoaning the volatile location of their store. A bit later, John lets himself be caught with marijuana while hanging out with a couple of pothead friends whose level of inertia makes Beavis and Butthead look like dynamic, reliable self-starters.
The full prison experience involves Nelson being the target of random violence from convicts (fuelled by cigarette payments from John), getting sent to the hole for misconduct, tasting fine slammer cuisine and running afoul of Lynard (Michael Shannon, the former Marine in World Trade Center), the resident cold-blooded psycho who’s liable to stab you in the knees with a fork at the slightest provocation. Last but not least, Nelson gets “sold” (it’s all about serving hard time, people) to Barry, the winemaking prison bigwig with a baby duck fetish. Chi McBride plays the role with a velvety commitment, giving Barry a sort of unassailable calm and a special fondness for his prison-style wine, suavely saying “I make it in the toilet” as if nothing better could happen for the bouquet.
While Lynard and Barry provide some good laughs, others are badly unfunny and idiotic (the warden and the head guard, played by Dylan Baker and David Koechner, are especially awful), and the same utterly lame scatological joke is used over and over. Written by Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon and Michal Patrick Jann, the movie has hints of real bitterness and disillusionment at the American judicial and penal system, but the plot stays the course with comedy, and whenever something “harsh” happens the goofy music always make sure the film keeps a light mood. Arnett and Shepard play rather well off each other, the latter being a good choice to play John, the kind of slightly unkempt, untrustworthy fellow likely to spin a tall tale while hiding a permanent smirk. Cunningly passing himself off as Nelson’s necessary ally to show him the prison ropes, John sees the pecking order turned upside down when events conspire to raise Nelson’s profile in the joint, and that leads to a completely ludicrous but pretty funny climax, a brilliant piece of faux tragedy.
According to my admittedly strict definition (romantic comedies and films that give earnest attention to their dramatic elements are excluded), there have been 15 or so comedies so far this year. I find them to be a very weak bunch, so that probably makes me like the film a little more than I would in a better year for movies of the same nature. I’m still waiting for the next comedy that’ll have me laughing as hard and as often as 2004’s Anchorman. “Let’s Go to Prison” doesn’t approach that level of comic genius, but I had a decent time watching it.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay