Flicka


I love horses, and especially the wild variety. I got some on my shower curtain, on my desk, on my calendar and on one of my pillows. I admire their grace, their strength, their freedom. To me, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is one of the most enthralling films ever made, all genres included. The love and respect I have for these majestic creatures has no doubt seeped into this review, where I offer a highly favourable assessment of “Flicka”. But even for those who don’t really feel one way or another about horses, this new film from Michael Mayer (following his first feature, A Home at the End of the World) has enough going for it on the human level that you’re bound to be touched someway, somehow by this delightful story of a girl and her beloved four-legged friend.

Katie McLaughlin (Alison Lohman) lives on the family ranch alongside a mountain range in Wyoming. We first see her as she hands in a blank essay paper at the end of the school year at a Laramie boarding school, oblivious to time while thinking of the wide open spaces where she truly feels alive. The blank essay doesn’t sit well with her strict father Rob, played by Tim McGraw, who believes that she should rein in her dreaminess and concentrate on her studies so she can go to college. Out riding one day, Katie notices a wild and proud black filly. Seeing something of herself in the creature, she names the horse Flicka and longs to ride her someday. But her dad will have none of it: he sees mustangs as a nuisance and a financial hazard, puts the horse in a pen and plans to sell it to a rodeo. Katie will not be denied that easily, though: without her father’s consent, she sneaks off at night to connect with the horse and over time establishes a powerful bond with Flicka. When the day comes that the horse is taken away from her, there isn’t much that will stop Katie in her journey to reclaim her kindred spirit.

Along the way there are alternately playful and touching moments with her mom Nell (Maria Bello) and her big brother Howard (Ryan Kwanten). While there’s conflict stemming from Katie’s perilous determination to be with Flicka, the McLaughlins are very much a close-knit, loving family. There are several lovely and heartfelt moments between Nell and Rob, as well as between Katie and her parents, and there’s a scene between Katie and the college-bound Howard that will really tug at your heartstrings. It captures in a couple sentences the changing-but not diminishing- essence of the ties that bind. The script by Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner, an excellent modernization of a 1941 novel by Mary O’Hara, has a little humor, a lot of wit and a great deal of resonance and emotional sincerity.

The film is well served by a top-rate group of actors. Lohman once again displays the ability, complemented by her petite figure and vividly youthful looks, to convincingly play someone a decade younger than her actual age of 27. She gives Katie a forceful and resolute demeanor that never veers into rebellion for rebellion’s sake. The film is book ended by her narrating the essay I mentioned earlier, and her words embrace and celebrate the beauty of the American West with a quiet but strong vitality. Lohman was recently miscast in Where the Truth Lies, but her work in White Oleander was superb, and she’s also had memorable roles in Matchstick Men and Big Fish. McGraw looks like a keeper. After his impressive debut as an out-of-control, yet multidimensional, football dad in Friday Night Lights, here he plays a stern man who believes in doing things his way but comes to treasure his daughter’s vibrant spirit. Bello is a lively, buoyant presence while Kwanten, an Australian actor with an extensive soap opera past Down Under, just might be a name to watch with his Colin Farrell-like rogue looks. I also want to point out Aaron Zigman’s inspired score, well in tune to what happens on the screen but never too intrusive, and mention the charming photo montage in the closing credits. It’s a very nice salute to girls, women and the horses they hold dear, as well as a lovely nod to country life. Mayer has created a wholesome film that will deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as family classics like Old Yeller (1957), The Black Stallion (1979) and Duma (2005). “Flicka” captures the same kind of magic between humans and animals. It’s a rather simple story, but beautifully told, and I highly recommend it.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

MORE REVIEWS BY THIS AUTHOR

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning


The principle of diminishing returns certainly seems to apply to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies. For the purpose of relevance to this review, I chose to comment only on Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original and Marcus Nispel’s 2003 remake. The former was a disturbing, iconic and nightmarish horror classic, with a perfect opening voiceover. The latter was a slick, intense and efficient film in its own right, even thought it couldn’t recreate its predecessor’s visceral impact. Now here’s a prequel that seems more intent on grossing people out with gore than on presenting something memorable.

This is not to say that Jonathan Liebesman’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” doesn’t have its moments. The shot of Leatherface walking slowly on that godforsaken back road early on, chainsaw to his side, is a visual that conjures up great dread and despair, and the way he dispatches one poor soul later on is inspired hardcore stuff. But scenes that stand out are very few and far between, and the film falters in part because of a middling script that stretches to reach 90-odd minutes. The main thing that felt like padding was the confusing introduction of a weird biker couple, but let’s go back a little. The year is 1969. Eric (Matt Bomer) and his younger brother Dean (Taylor Handley) are driving across Texas with their respective girlfriends Chrissie and Bailey (Jordana Brewster and Diora Baird) for one final bit of summer fun before the boys head to Vietnam. It’ll be a second trip for Eric, while Dean secretly plans to go to Mexico with Bailey to avoid the draft. This bit of information is to be interpreted as shorthand for their different toughness levels; no points for guessing that Dean will have to find his inner soldier at some point. In a bizarre turn of events, some crazy biker chick wants to stop the group’s jeep for a robbery, a development that leads to a violent crash with an unfortunate, road-crossing cow. The whole mess then leads to the involvement of the perverted, self-proclaimed Sheriff Hoyt, played once again by R. Lee Ermey, and from there things go from bad to worse.

There are well-done early sequences about the death and decay of a small town after the slaughterhouse is shut down (one of the employees was Thomas Hewitt, better known as Leatherface), but there’s little of interest beyond that. The filmmakers made the curious decision to open the film in 1939, when Hewitt was born, and then jump ahead 30 years in the blink of an eye. We learn that Leatherface (the returning Andrew Bryniarski) was bullied at school, but that was clearly alluded to in Nispel’s movie. Isn’t there a huge amount of cumulative trauma, abuse and frustration to be mined for insight over such a long time frame? The screenplay by Sheldon Turner, with story contributions by David J. Schow, focuses a little too much on the deranged Sheriff, to the detriment of the chainsaw-wielding maniac. Ermey knows he has a juicy role to work with, and he has many occasions to communicate the twisted worldview of his character, the dinner scene being a prime example. Among the talented young actors in the film, a special mention goes to the beautiful Brewster (The Fast and the Furious, Annapolis), who does a great job in a role similar to the one played convincingly by Jessica Biel in 2003. Baird is absolutely stunning too. If you’re not in the mood for horror, you can always be in the mood for beauty, in which case you should check out her spectacular cover picture for the latest Stuff magazine.

The ending, more or less out of left field, goes against what is generally accepted regarding Leatherface in that it involves cunning and scheming. Thomas Hewitt can charge out of his demented family’s front porch like a speeding train with that chainsaw in his hands, but his M.O. doesn’t include the kind of stuff we see in the final minutes. Liebesman’s debut feature, Darkness Falls, was critically drubbed but made three times its 11 million $ budget in the first few months of 2003. It was one of those theatrical releases that resemble most of the straight-to-DVD horror films: it’s a bit silly and ridiculous, it has noticeable flaws, but it can do the job if you’re not too demanding. “TCM: The Beginning” marks an improvement for him, but it’s still an unsatisfying film. I walked into the theatre to Witness the Birth of Fear, as the posters say, but what we get is an origin story short on both origin and originality.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

MORE REVIEWS BY THIS AUTHOR

The Wicker Man


There are some films, like 1973’s “The Wicker Man”, whose cult status seems to me like it was obtained through magic-or perhaps pagan rituals. I don’t understand how something so kooky and ordinary can be esteemed by fans as being anything more than an hour or so of weirdness bolstered somewhat by an uncompromising ending. Now we get a below-par remake helmed by Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, The Shape of Things), certainly not a name associated with genre films.

The first thing I have to say about “The Wicker Man” is that before I plunged deeply into its “mystique” by renting the original, I must confess I thought it actually featured a man made of wicker. Wouldn’t that have been something? But no, it turns out that wicker men were giant structures made of tree branches and designed to contain animal and human sacrifices in pagan societies. It’s not too clear whether they actually existed or not, but my bet is they did in some way, shape or form.

My initial thoughts that I was going to see an actual wicker man, in the tradition of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, kind of reminded me of the time when my best friend rented the Eddie Murphy vehicle Metro only to find out it wasn’t about subway shenanigans but instead referred to the police beat in metro areas.

In the 2006 version of the Wicker Man, Nicolas Cage plays Edward Malus, a California highway patrol cop who goes to a remote Puget Sound island community called Summersisle to investigate a report that a little girl has gone missing. Unlike in the original film, where the village revealed itself to be a haven for pagan songs, beliefs and rituals contrasting with-and shocking- the devout Christian policeman played by Edward Woodward, the new Summersisle looks and feels more like an Amish outpost in the middle of nowhere. The island is led by Sister Summersisle (Ellen Burstyn), who has turned the place into a female-driven utopia, where all the women are Sisters and all the men are nearly mute labourers. LaBute’s films tend to be flat, self-absorbed portrayals of male-female relationships, and I’m confused as to how, if at all, his reinterpretation of the material fits within his output. “The Wicker Man” is his first genre film, and I don’t think we have a good match here. Right from the get-go a certain aimlessness permeates the film, starting with a puzzling highway crash-and-rescue scene involving an enigmatic little girl. Things don’t get any better on the island, where Cage has two acting modes: completely befuddled or suddenly hysterical.

LaBute doesn’t explore religious extremism in any kind of meaningful way, nor does he offer insights into the blind faith, lynch mob mentality that is central to the film’s bleak final moments, thankfully unchanged except for a clumsy, unnecessary “sometime later” add-on of the kind you expect to see, rightly or wrongly, in horror films. Kate Beahan, for one, never seems to know how to play Sister Willow, Edward’s ex-fiancée (is she ambivalent or not?). And while Burstyn is not a bad choice, the question remains as to why LaBute deemed it necessary to overhaul the island’s gender hierarchy. Cage is not the best casting decision, but he’s saddled with streaky dialogue and a few scenes that are just plain silly (the one where he commandeers a bicycle at gunpoint and gamely rides the antiquated model through rough terrain is a classic of the absurd, although it might work as transportation irony given that he’s also the awesome Ghost Rider, coming next February). Not all that surprisingly to me, British Columbia’s Molly Parker (Men with Brooms, Rare Birds, The Good Shepherd) offers the strongest supporting performance as elementary school teacher Sister Rose. Parker has the kind of guarded beauty one would want to do extra homework for, if you will.

The original Wicker Man was in large part about the outrage expressed by Woodward’s deeply religious cop at the island’s pagan mores and nature-oriented beliefs, which gave the film a New Age, counter-culture vibe that grabs your attention, but only periodically. LaBute’s film is even less focused: his motives are unclear, and the execution belies, I would suggest, a lack of affinity for the pacing and narrative choices that would have made his “Wicker Man” a much sharper thriller. Judging from the very minimal, last-minute advertising and the lack of press screenings, I think Warner Bros. knew the movie was a major misfire. But hey, all was not lost: at least I got to see the top-notch trailer for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

MORE REVIEWS BY THIS AUTHOR

The Descent


So there I was on July 6th at Fantasia for the Canadian premiere of Neil Marshall’s “The Descent”. Viewing conditions were, regrettably, typical Fantasia stuff: the creaky and uncomfortable seats of the Hall theatre, about two speeches too many from the three made by festival honchos, and my personal favourite, the usual percentage of hollering, clapping morons who distractingly come to life whenever a kill scene happens to be rather inventive or gruesome.

These mitigating factors didn’t really prevent me from enjoying the film, but I wanted a second look at it, so there I was August 4th at the AMC for the earliest showing, with your standard-issue Friday afternoon crowd of eight people. Seeing the movie again confirmed my opinion that this first-rate plunge into the abyss of despair is one of the premier horror films of recent memory. I was impressed enough with its intensity and sheer horror that I added half a star to my initial three star rating. Let me go through the plot a little bit.

As the movie opens, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) are wrapping up a white-water rafting expedition somewhere in England. The day ends in devastating tragedy, however, when Sarah’s husband and her young daughter suffer horrific deaths in a car accident. One year later, in an attempt to reconnect with friends and especially with Sarah, Juno organizes an all-girl caving trip in the Appalachian mountains. There, the previously mentioned three meet up with tomboy Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), Rebecca’s younger sister Sam (MyAnna Buring) and responsible Beth (Alex Reid), Sarah’s best friend. Once everybody’s in the cave, Juno reveals that instead of taking them to a popular spot, she brought them inside an uncharted system, because she inexplicably thought it would be exciting and they could name it and stuff. Needless to say, this doesn’t help group chemistry, especially considering some slowly simmering tensions (“Was this trip about me or you?”, Sarah asks Juno at some point). Adversity piles up until Marshall kicks things in terrifying high gear with the introduction of a hideous, predatory sub-species lurking deep within the caves, sending the film pedal-to-the-ground into survivalist horror that will stun you on more than one occasion.

Marshall dealt with the theme of a group under siege in his first feature, Dog Soldiers (2002), where soldiers in training battled werewolves while holed up in an abandoned farmhouse. That one was a solid film, while “The Descent” is a remarkable accomplishment. The main difference, other than the inverted female-to-male ratio in the cast, is that Dog Soldiers didn’t take itself too seriously and had some cheeky moments. No such relief with “The Descent”, where trauma upon trauma befalls these strong gals, especially Sarah, until the latter has no choice but to revert to a primeval state where self-preservation is the only thing that matters. The film sustains superior tension right up to its jarring final frame, about which there has been some debate. Now, you may be aware that the U.K. cut featured a different ending (one easy way to read all about it is to look up the film on Wikipedia). It’s certainly very interesting, arguably even bleaker, and it will be a real downer if the DVD doesn’t include both endings. And yet, the ending we get worked for me, being bleak enough in its own right and providing a final jolt in line with the intensity of the whole movie.

The horror genre, along with a few choice thrillers that aren’t purely horror films, has a long tradition of depicting the backwoods as places of unsuspected, chilling menace (Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, Wrong Turn, Wolf Creek, and I could name several others). Marshall starts from that premise of nature as harshly inhospitable and exploits it fully, but he also touches on fears of the dark (the eerie, progressively darkening hallway early on is an effective omen), the fear of turning paranoid after a traumatic event and the breakdown of trust among previously close individuals. The British director has crafted a film of rare intensity (the ferocity of the crawlers when they attack will leave you breathless) and enormously better than the vaguely similar The Cave (2005), a weak movie on its own and a really dreadful one in comparison.

“The Descent” has several striking moments, most of them involving Sarah, who emerges as a fascinating character. The stunning sight of her coming out of that thick pool of blood and who knows what, looking like a warrior princess gone to the worst depths of Hell and back, is one I won’t soon forget. If Hell hath no fury like that of a woman scorned, what about the one of a woman who lost her young daughter, then embarked on a caving trip that went beyond the nightmarish and into the unthinkable?

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

MORE REVIEWS BY THIS AUTHOR

The Lake House


“The Lake House”, a remake of a South Korean film from 2000, is the hardest kind of film to review: it arouses little emotion and leaves only a faded imprint, so the critic is somewhat at a loss to comment on it, either positively or negatively. I could tell you it’s a fine date movie, but I could whisper in the same breath that it’s flat, a little dull and quite ordinary. Most of the film just exists there on the screen, to be watched, mildly appreciated and then likely forgotten. That it comes alive at some point, in admittedly ardent fashion, is a credit to the two leads, Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves, who are working together for the first time since they had a high-stress public transit experience in Speed (’94).

The story, a rather original take on time-challenged romance, is about two people living in the same lake house two years apart and exchanging letters about this surprising development. Alex (Reeves) is a Chicago architect and Kate (Bullock) is a doctor, also in Chicago. The timeline is 2006 and Kate is moving to the city, so she asks the new tenant, who turns out to be previous tenant Alex in 2004, to forward her mail to her new apartment. Both intrigued, they reply back and forth, then come to believe that they are indeed communicating through time. This storyline operates through an old-fashioned roadside mailbox, and that’s something I liked about the film. I know the premise makes the mailbox magical, but I like the fact that it uses a more or less quaint version of an everyday object as its time channel, instead of somebody finding a mysterious time portal (Kate & Leopold comes to mind). It’s also interesting that the movie doesn’t involve a journey to the distant past, which was done elegantly in Somewhere in Time (’80), but a relatively small two-year gap, even if I have a strong suspicion it doesn’t play fair with its timeline.

Should Kate and Alex end up together? That would seem to be a given, yet the screenplay only sporadically makes a strong case for it, and what leads to the ending makes you wonder, well ok, if this is happening there, when did all of the other stuff take place? Where does this and that fit in, and what about this other thing? Any way I spun the story in my head, a sizable hole came up in the internal logic. The movie could have pushed aside such rain-on-the-parade rational thinking by sweeping you along with grand romance, but “The Lake House” is disappointingly flat on that level. Bullock is mostly despondent, resigned or piteous (how ridiculously long did she wait at that restaurant anyway?), but that’s how the role is written, while Reeves isn’t your best pick to portray a romantic hopeful. And yet there’s a brief moment where the movie comes alive: at a party in ’04 where he knows who she is but the reverse isn’t yet true, Kate and Alex share a passionate slow dance as a prelude to a torrid kiss. The whole sequence comes more or less out of nowhere, since they’re both accompanied at that party, but it sure had me enraptured. It’s worth seeing, especially if you’re with your lover, or simply if you’re the romantically inclined type. The following scene, where they have a talk about that evening, is lively and hints at a more upbeat mood, but the movie falls prey to a formula that locks them into mournful star-crossed lovers. Kate decides it’s not meant to be, and they drift apart until the final twist arrives.

I’m not familiar with the films of Argentinian director Alejandro Agresti, but I just loved Valentin, which he wrote and directed in 2002. Told from the perspective of a precocious eight-year old boy, it’s a delightful tale filled with love, kindness and gentle observations about human nature. One of the problems with “The Lake House” is that unlike Valentin, it doesn’t have a central captivating character interacting with well-drawn supporting players. The dog Kate and Alex share unknowingly through the years is easily the most interesting background character. It’s telling that the cute bit where the dog plays a little chess and the sight of Keanu Reeves wearing a hard hat (not the likeliest of association, you may agree) are among the few memorable moments of the film. We get a glimpse of the difficult relationship Alex has with his father (Christopher Plummer), who indeed seems like quite a difficult man, and we see Kate confiding in her mom or in a co-worker (Willeke van Ammelrooy and Shoreh Aghdashloo), but it never adds real insight into either protagonist.

And as far as the actual lake house goes, it’s more of an architectural oddity than anything else, with little contribution beyond the corresponding mailbox. Sandra Bullock, like Jennifer Garner and Reese Witherspoon, to name only a few, really seems to be among the most approachable, likeable and down-to-earth of actresses. As “The Lake House” unfolds, it becomes detrimental that the movie couldn’t find a bigger place for her charming and easygoing manner. The result feels like a sailboat just floating by until a Hollywood breeze takes it to a conventional destination.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

MORE REVIEWS BY THIS AUTHOR

The Break-Up


Here’s a movie that starts by being hollow, settles into uncomfortable acrimony, tries to leaven the dark mood with meek asides then builds, if we can call it that, towards a tacked-on ending that in real life could pass as a sense of potential but in this case feels disconnected from what happened before.

The first sign that something is amiss with “The Break-Up” is how quickly it doesn’t want to be about a relationship but about a break-up, depriving its characters of a proper introduction to the audience. After art gallery attendant Brooke (Jennifer Aniston) and tour bus guide Gary (Vince Vaughn) exchange a few words at Wrigley Field, it’s already time for a photo montage that leads to these supposed lovers sharing a condo. I can imagine a film where that sequence would have been a cute throw-in during the end credits, but Peyton Reed’s non-romantic, misguided semi-comedy is not that movie. How are we supposed to care about people we’ve only seen, almost literally, in a few snapshots?

The problems in this Chicago-set picture start with the couple fighting over the “Three Lemons Incident” and the “Dishes Dispute” we’re familiar with from the ads and continue after the would-be couple behaves in juvenile ways sure to worsen the situation (him) or in questionable fishing-for-a-reaction tactics (her). I know the previously mentioned disagreements are not really about lemons and dishes. She wants to go to the ballet; he’d rather go to Michigan for a college football game. It comes down to Gary being a self-centered guy who can’t be bothered when watching a ball game after work, and Brooke finally erupting at his indifference (he should have volunteered to help with those dishes) and the fact that he’s been taking her for granted. Where’s Dr. Phil when you need him?

Vaughn’s real-life friend Jon Favreau doesn’t have that much to say or do as Gary’s best friend. John Michael Higgins is funny as Brooke’s outgoing, singing fool of a brother, but the other supporting roles have no substance to them whatsoever, and that’s a large group that includes Vincent D’Onofrio and Cole Hauser as Gary’s brothers, Judy Davis as Brooke’s boss and Joey Lauren Adams as Brooke’s best friend.

From the structure of the film, it’s hard to see what could have made Brooke and Gary want to live together (whether Aniston and Vaughn are really an item is a whole other story). Yet both lead actors do their best with material that is essentially flawed and generally unpleasant to sit through as moviegoers. Aniston excels at quiet exasperation that sometimes boils over, like in this film, into justified outrage, and she has the intense stare and biting voice to pull that off. She had an eye-opening performance in 2002’s The Good Girl, but don’t forget she first dipped her feet into dramatic territory as early as 1996 with a supporting role in She’s the One, one of my old favourites and a real charmer I strongly recommend as a rental. I don’t need to elaborate on the real-life break-up that Aniston was going through while “The Break-Up” was filming, and she has often described doing the movie as cathartic. And allow me to say this about the wardrobe department: with the exception of her French maid outfit in Friends with Money, Aniston hasn’t looked this stunning at the movies since Picture Perfect (1997).

Vaughn (Swingers, Old School, The Wedding Crashers) is obviously comfortable in the kind of scenes where he’s shooting pool with the boys or playing video games as if nothing else matters. I’m not sure to what degree he contributed to Jay Lavender and Jeremy Garelick’s screenplay, but the end result is lacking in emotional honesty. A puppeteer can only pull some strings a certain way before the audience feels jerked around just as much as the puppet. For the most part, the unpleasant tone of “The Break-Up” makes us want to see Gary and Brooke break up and move on already. Then the filmmakers dangle a carrot, and then they remove it only to dangle it again under the umbrella of possibilities. But beyond a certain point, you can’t blame people for just moving on themselves.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

MORE REVIEWS BY THIS AUTHOR

Poseidon


If you know your Greek mythology basics, you’re probably aware that Poseidon, the god of the sea, horses and natural disasters, is “quite an ill-tempered fellow”, as the captain played by Leslie Nielsen puts it in 1972’s “The Poseidon Adventure”. He was likely to engage in a variety of quarrels, and while myth holds that he protected seafarers, he could also unleash his mighty fury on his aquatic domain. Therefore, it’s kind of a 50-50 proposition as to whether or not it’s a good idea to name your ocean liner after him, wouldn’t you say? The 1969 novel from Paul Gallico, quite an interesting read but one that gets rambling and meandering as it progresses (and what a weird final chapter), now gets a further upheaval under the direction of experienced German director Wolfgang Petersen.

The classic survival story, to which the 1972 movie stuck rather closely, is now hitting theatres in even more spectacular and riveting fashion. Petersen, who knows a thing or two about disaster below or on the high seas (“Das Boot”, “The Perfect Storm”), has fashioned his Poseidon into large-scale entertainment that’ll leave you in shock at the devastation from that infamous rogue wave, but also in awe of the moviemaking ability that went into the whole film.

The picture begins with a dazzling bird’s eye, 360° view of the enormous Poseidon, a luxurious ocean liner headed for New York City on New Year’s Eve. The revelry is at a fever pitch inside the ship’s majestic ballroom, but not for long: a rogue wave of gigantic proportions is implacably, rapidly on its way. No words can do justice to how dwarfing it looks and how devastating the impact is. The ship capsizes, bodies fly around and all sorts of structures and accessories fall off with deadly results. And then there’s that little thing called the ocean: if it wasn’t intimidating enough before, it feels mighty ominous and too close for comfort now.

Inside the upturned ballroom, the captain (Andre Braugher) tries to reassure the survivors with talk of air pockets that should maintain the boat afloat and GPS tracking systems that will notify rescue teams. He advises everybody to remain where they are, but a renegade group develops out of the initiative of poker shark Dylan Johns (an intense Josh Lucas), and a bunch of folks decide to try to reach the bottom of the ship in the hope of finding an escape route. The group initially includes Johns, former mayor of New York- and former fireman- Robert Ramsey (the rock-solid Kurt Russell), a despairing passenger (Richard Dreyfuss), a single mom with her young boy (Jacinda Barrett and Jimmy Bennett) and a waiter (Freddy Rodriguez).

In another part of the wrecked vessel, two lovebirds including Ramsey’s daughter (the lovely Emmy Rossum) are joined by another young woman and a macho blowhard. Both groups join up pretty quickly, and while we only have a short-hand version of the characters’ personalities, that doesn’t matter because it’s not so much who these people were before tragedy struck but what their actions are in reaction to it. Some interesting relationships and interplay develop which I’ll leave for yourselves to discover. So the human aspect is not neglected (the most touching scenes involve Rossum and Dreyfuss, in separate instances), but the treacherous journey up the ship is what really allows Petersen to set up moments that’ll have you mesmerized in anticipation. The part in the elevator shaft and an extended underwater sequence are especially memorable. The film’s few weak elements, which are minor, don’t detract from the overall intensity. The alarm ringing in the ballroom is really wimpy compared to the unnerving dual sirens in the 1972 film, and the script from Mark Protosevich has a few too many instances where characters stumble upon someplace that has a handy map of the ship (although it’s quite possible that with safety standards, these things really are all over that big of an ocean liner).

Petersen knows how to present images of exceptional impact, and he has added a few new ones with this film. Remember, among many examples, the haunting sight of the burning hangar of virus victims in “Outbreak” (1995) or the hard-hitting final shots of “Das Boot” (1981). In Poseidon, strong casting and effective screenwriting act as his building blocks for a gripping disaster picture where the combination of human heroics and computer-generated imagery make for grand spectacle.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

MORE REVIEWS BY THIS AUTHOR

BloodRayne


I don’t know what made the few people who saw “BloodRayne” trash it so much, but I for one won’t hesitate to defend the latest offering from German filmmaker Uwe Boll, whose movies must have established some sort of record for lowest average rating on Metacritic. Here’s a film that was badly mishandled by its distribution and marketing people and severely butchered by most critics, but it deserved much better on both counts. Reading some reviews, you’d think this movie was a new plague on humanity rather than a very decent film that falls a little short of its ambitions.

The film’s U.S. distribution was an unmitigated disaster. Dumped into a paltry 985 American screens on January 6, the same weekend as the powerful and highly lucrative Hostel (which had 2300+ screens), “BloodRayne” only made 2,4 M $ before it vanished from the earth. Now it’s making a meek comeback with a 20-screen Canadian run, including the AMC in our fine city. As far as I can tell, there’s a total absence of ads for it, so I was surprised to see eight people at the afternoon showing I went to. Seriously folks, this must be one of the least-promoted movies of all time. Even a film that might be a new addition to my yearly Worst 5, The Benchwarmers, gets a few print ads even if it wasn’t shown to critics. It’s a shame you won’t hear about “BloodRayne” other than in this review, really, because save for a weak ending and a couple of bad performances, Boll’s latest is an enjoyable, sexy and polished near-epic with a very attractive lead in Kristanna Loken.

The good Dr. Boll is synonymous with mindless movies like House of the Dead and Alone in the Dark, but here he delivers a potent revenge story of vampires, swords and mysticism written by Guinevere Turner. The premise of “BloodRayne” looks like the kind of stuff going straight to DVD, but it has a good budget and a recognizable cast with people like Loken (T-X in T3), Michael Madsen, Michelle Rodriguez and Ben Kingsley. The star is the beautiful Loken, who by the way is far from a bad actress, but let’s also mention the stunning Romanian mountains, countryside and castle where the film was shot, the orchestral score and the ominous chorus chants that all contribute to a few epic flourishes.

As always with Boll, “BloodRayne” is an adaptation of a video game, but frankly I don’t think it matters what’s similar or not to the game because Turner’s story stands on its own. Here’s how it goes. We are in medieval times and the balance of the universe is threatened by a vampire lord by the name of Kagan (Kingsley). A secret organization called the Brimstone Society has been fighting evil generally, and Kagan specifically, since the dawn of time. It is led by Vladimir (Madsen), with help from Sebastian (Matt Davis) and Katarin (Rodriguez). Meanwhile, lead character Rayne (Loken) has escaped the carnival where she was paraded as a freak (she can heal her wounds by drinking blood; she’s a dhampir, part human and part vampire). Rayne’s dad is none other than Kagan, and she embarks on a quest for vengeance after a nightmare about how her mother was killed, an attempted rape, a violent escape from the carnival and a visit to a fortune-teller. Along the way, Rayne teams up with the Brimstone people to retrieve three talismans (an eye, a rib and a heart) that grant unlimited power to whoever assembles them.

The 5’11” Loken, who spends the whole movie in a revealing bustier-style tank top, displays a lot of athleticism in well-done fight scenes and looks really hot with her semi-short hair dyed a fiery red. But that’s not where the beauty ends: there are several impressive vistas of the Carpathian Mountains, long shots of characters on horseback and inspired glimpses of Kagan’s castle, which would be worthy of a more menacing figure than Kagan, who mostly sits on his throne ordering people around. From an acting standpoint, kudos go to Loken and Will Sanderson as Kagan henchman Domastir, while Madsen is nowhere near as lethargic as a lot of critics made him out to be. The reports that he spent parts or all of the movie under the influence of the bottle may or may not be true, but for me it’s a simple issue of evaluating within context, and that seems to evade a lot of people: wouldn’t you look and sound a little weary if you had been fighting vampires for decades?

The few blemishes, and they are noticeable, are the stilted expression of Kingsley and the hammy turn by Billy Zane, who plays an underwritten vampire dissident in hiding. “BloodRayne” is not to be taken as especially profound, but Zane reads his lines in a way that would be better suited to Muppets in Transylvania, while Kingsley has a priceless monologue about keeping promises, scouring the land and slaughtering the populace that makes me think a thought bubble would show Kingsley shaking his head and muttering “what is this?” It’s a mildly amusing monologue, actually, but spoken so quickly you might miss the comical extent of non-peaceful endeavours it entails. What doesn’t help is that both actors look like they got the shortest straws on Wig Distribution Day, especially in Zane’s case.

But overall I enjoyed “BloodRayne” a good deal, and it’s certainly not as atrocious as many people would like you to believe. I think Loken had it right in the current issue of Starlog magazine: “It’s very difficult”, she said about the poor reception of the film. “Of course you want to put your work out there to be accepted and appreciated, but in this case I don’t think it was the film’s fault as much as it was the distribution company behind it, who were ill-equipped to sell a movie of this magnitude.” I would tend to agree. This is a movie that with good advertising could have made a healthy amount of money. It’s an above-average story of good vs. evil in fantasy parameters, with one striking heroine and a lot going for it. Boll has rounded up an intriguing cast for his next film, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, which threads much of the same ground as “BloodRayne”. Loken, Leelee Sobieski, Jason Statham, Burt Reynolds, Ray Liotta and Ron Perlman are in it. Hopefully a) it gets a theatrical release and b) a worthy promotional effort.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

MORE REVIEWS BY THIS AUTHOR

Running Scared


I know trailers are often deceiving, but the one for “Running Scared” really had me excited. It’s a stylish, pulse-pounding piece of work with the perfect “tune casting” of Muse’s Time is Running Out creating a sense of urgency. So it was with positive anticipation that I stepped into the theatre to watch the whole thing, which I’m happy to report lands somewhere between very good and excellent. This new film by Wayne Kramer, who directed and co-wrote The Cooler, has an interesting approach to a mob story on top of making especially good use of the flashback device.

Let me explain about the flashback. When the film opens, someone has just been shot (18 hours before in the storyline). When the final act kicks in, the tension about how it happened and what follows is raised considerably because we realize something we’ve been led to believe hasn’t happened yet. It’s a deft screenwriting sleight of hand when the rabbit coming out of the magician’s hat is not the one we expected. Kramer has likened elements of “Running Scared” to themes and figures found in fairy tales such as those of the Brothers Grimm and those in children’s literature like Alice in Wonderland, and this serves as a narrative compass from which the key developments unfold. You can see an allegory of the classic Lewis Carroll tale in one character’s journey, and an even more obvious reference to the Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel, more precisely the gingerbread house, at various moments in the film.

The story takes us into an unsavory world of crooked cops, mobsters, hookers, pimps and pedophiles. Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker) is a low-ranking mob associate with the Perello clan in a gritty area of New Jersey. When a corrupt cop is killed during a drug deal gone wrong, Joey is ordered to get rid of the incriminating gun. He stows it in the basement, but his son’s best friend Oleg (Cameron Bright), who lives next door, takes it, shoots his abusive stepfather then runs off into the night with the weapon. Over the course of his journey, he encounters the previously mentioned gallery of the underworld while Joey tries to find him and the gun to save his own life. Then the Russian mob gets involved, and then the police in the form of Detective Rydell (Chazz Palminteri), and all bets are off. Joey at least gets help from his wife Teresa (Vera Farmiga), who’s aware of her husband’s shady dealings but steadfastly believes in his goodness.

While Walker (The Fast and the Furious, Into the Blue) exudes the required presence and toughness for his lead role, it’s really Farmiga and Bright who are in the film’s most memorable moments. The part where Teresa goes to the home of a pedophile couple has an unforeseen denouement that is both stunning and satisfying, while also firmly establishing the moral ground of the movie. Farmiga, an under-the-radar beauty who projects a great deal of emotion and conviction on-screen, received strong critical acclaim for her role in Down to the Bone (2004), a very limited release that to my knowledge has not come out on DVD. But I saw the 32 year-old Jersey native in Autumn in New York (2000) and I also enjoyed her charming turn in 2002’s Dummy opposite Adrien Brody. On a side note, Farmiga plays the female lead in Martin Scorsese’s next film, The Departed, which is planned for a December ’06 release.

Bright (Godsend) has an impassive facial expression that works very well for Oleg, who’s been bruised by life but sees things with a clear eye and an unforgiving mind. One of the film’s best scenes is when Oleg is at a diner with his wounded stepfather, a sort of black sheep of the Russian mob. Oleg tells him he’s sorry, but not about shooting at him: about missing. If his thoughts were a loaded pistol and voicing them pulled the trigger, the abusive Anzor (Karel Roden) would be shot dead right then and there, people. Anzor is an unstable man who’s obsessed with John Wayne’s fate in The Cowboys (1972), and this obsession will lead to a shocking visual at a hockey rink near the end of the film.

References to fairy tales abound: Oleg can be viewed as a Little Red Riding Hood or Pinocchio figure, while the prostitute who helps him can be seen as a street version of the Blue Fairy. Plus, one of the pedophiles’ last name is Hansel. All that might sound heavy-handed, but it establishes a framework in which the film’s bloodshed, whether stylized or just plain messy, is not senseless but represents the price of depravity, of being on the wrong end of the moral scale. And stick around for the drawings in the end credits, which nicely summarize how the film echoed its fairy tale elements. By maintaining a constant level of unrest complemented by a sinister score from Mark Isham, Kramer has delivered a dynamic remixing of the timeless themes of good and evil, suffering and retribution, and love and commitment.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

Firewall


When it comes to a film like “Firewall”, where you have a bankable star under duress, we all know the hero ends up saving the day. The barometers for appreciation are then whether there’s narrative rhythm and clarity, whether certain characters stand out through the writing or the performances and whether or not it’s a pleasant movie to sit through. In our present case, I must report very little to enjoy about this sluggish would-be thriller set in the world of banking security.

I’d be at a loss to come up with reasons, even for unconditional Harrison Ford fans, to go see a film whose single moment of vicarious satisfaction you’ve probably seen in the trailers. That’s when the good guy empties the bad guy’s offshore account, in a manner I couldn’t even try to summarize. Other than that, words like tedious and dull come to mind about this star vehicle where Ford plays Seattle bank security expert Jack Stanfield. Jack has spent 20 years developing security systems for his bank, and his high-paying job has allowed him a comfortable life with architect wife Beth (Virginia Madsen) and two children in a stately lakefront house. Young Andy is played by Jimmy Bennett, who never seems to be in peaceful settings (he was in last year’s Hostage and The Amityville Horror, and he’ll be aboard the Poseidon in May), while older sister Sarah is played by Carly Schroeder.

Stanfield is at his workplace when he meets Bill Cox (Paul Bettany), who’s posing as an entrepreneur. But when Cox furtively steps into Jack’s car after a meeting, he reveals his daring plan: he has enlisted cronies to hold his family hostage in their own home as leverage to force Jack to hack into the bank’s system and transfer him an insane amount of money in a way that would finger Jack as the culprit who ran way with the cash after committing a passion-driven murder. But that’s not all people, oh no. The plan has all the bad guys becoming sleepover bandits (they brought some frozen food) and Cox spending an extended amount of time with Jack inside the bank’s security sector to go over what needs to be done. It would be irrelevant to point out the names of the peripheral villains, but there’s one who looks more geeky than threatening, and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t do something, at some point, that eases the family’s ordeal.

Cox is a rather thankless role for Bettany, who put his talent to far better use in films like Master and Commander and Dogville, and even in Wimbledon, where he previously worked with director Richard Loncraine. Prone to killing associates in cold blood at the slightest mistake, Cox would be creepy if he wasn’t so forgettable, even if the script by Joe Forte tries hard to paint him as a heartless monster. The chief example of that is the scene where he gives a problematic cookie to a weirdly unsuspecting, peanut-allergic Andy (while they’re both watching the Flintstones). Conceptually, Cox’s money transfer scheme seems wholly preposterous. I understand very little about computers and online security, but this movie completely lost me with all the talk about wire transfer terminals and the variety of technological patchwork. If ever a movie needed an explanatory sheet about what the hell is going on, this one would be a good candidate.

But even with a basic grasp of the plot (evil dude messes with good guy’s family, good guy will do anything to protect and save his loved ones), “Firewall” irritates on other levels as well. There’s hardly a break from Alexandre Desplat’s overly insistent score, and Loncraine resorts to a few ill-considered gimmick shots more associated with horror films during the initial attack on the family. Madsen (steamy in The Hot Spot, splendid in Sideways) does her best at showing resilience under pressure, but she’s well into the background of what develops into a contrived cat and mouse game in which none other than the family dog will play an important part. It’s also a bit of a downer to see Ford in this weak variation on the kind of role he used to master, notably in Patriot Games (1992) and Air Force One (1997), two films featuring direct and violent threats to his family. The 63-year old still has that steely look, but it’s not a good sign when the film’s potentially best line (“You’ll get your money…when I get my family!”) comes too late and without sufficient anticipation or setup to create much interest.

Very few films have drawn my attention since 2006 began (that’s part of the reason why I checked into Eli Roth’s excellent, powerful Hostel on three occasions). But if you’re looking for efficient genre filmmaking, I recommend the unjustly slaughtered remake of When a Stranger Calls, whose linear simplicity and timely suspense are among the qualities lacking in “Firewall”.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay