Sunday, October 18, 2009

Make Room for Daddy: “The Stepfather” Remake is a Competent Enough Thriller

“The Stepfather” is not a very original movie. Of course it doesn’t help that it’s based on a little-seen 1987 thriller of the same name about a murderous man (played superbly by Lost’s Terry O’Quinn) who seeks out widows and divorcees and is willing to kill in order to form the “perfect family” (The movie was based on mass murderer John List who killed his entire family and fled and wasn't caught until eighteen years later). The first film was a product of it’s time. The Regan Era was in full swing. Things were more conservative and there was this ideal family life that many people strived for. And here came this little suspense flick about a guy who goes around killing his own family when they don’t live up to his perfect standards of living. Times have changed a lot in twenty two years and while divorce rates are at an all time high and the idea of “marriage” is being questioned everyday, I’m not sure this new “Stepfather” has much to say. But it is a fun little movie that is breezy, easily digestible and fun.

We’re introduced to a bearded man who appears to be changing his physical appearance in front of the bathroom mirror. He takes a shower, puts on a suit goes down stairs and makes himself some breakfast and walks out the front door with his luggage. Oh and there is a murdered woman and children laying on the floor. This guy, now known as David Harris (Dylan Walsh from TV’s “Nip/Tuck”) makes a move on divorcee Susan Harding (Sela Ward). Susan has three kids and has had a rocky divorce. Six months later she’s in love with David and they’re engaged to be married. Susan’s oldest and troublemaker son Michael (Penn Badgley from TV’s “Gossip Girl’) who has returned from his stint at a military school is a little suspicious of his mom’s new love interest. Of course David seems like the ideal father. He loves his wife and her kids and can’t wait to be a truly close family. Except for the fact that his a murdering psychopath.

Most of the film’s suspense comes from David’s attempts to make sure no one finds out his real identity. Everyone seems suspicious including a noisy cat lady neighbor, Susan’s ex-husband and even her own sister, whom David works for at her real estate business. When he refuses to give her his personal information for payroll, he up and quits because he says that the job’s not suited to him. The crazy cat lady tries to warn Susan because she thinks he looks like a guy she saw on America’s Most Wanted. Let’s just say she ends up at the bottom of her basement steps.

Anyone who’s iffy about seeing this movie because of its PG-13 rating should be told that while the film doesn’t really feature much graphic violence (and neither did the original R-rated film, save for a few bloody moments) it does have some brutal moments that are surely inappropriate for 13 year olds. I still think that it seems crazy to rate any movie that features a serial murder PG-13, but I realize the dreaded R rating vastly limits the film’s audience. I wouldn’t call this a “watered down” version of the original the way the recent and dreadful “Prom Night” was. That film was directed by Nelson McCormick who also helmed this new film. McCormick makes writer J.S. Cardone’s script work for the most part, but it’s riddled with things you’ve seen before and characters do things because the script says they should and not because someone would do them in real life.

Like the original “stepfather” the film’s main draw is in its lead performance. I enjoyed seeing Walsh breakout from his role as Sean McNamara on Nip/Tuck. He plays nice really well and he plays psychotic really well. It was a fun Jekyll and Hyde-type performance that was probably better than a film like this really deserves. He was charming when he needed to be and creepy when he needed to be. Good job.

There are much better films than “The Stepfather” and yet there are much worse films. I think this falls somewhere in the middle. Anyone who’s seen the first film (which was finally released for the first time on DVD on October 19th) should check that out watch this new one if they’re intrigued. If you want to be really scared at the movies you should see “Paranormal Activity” but if you want something lighter but still fun, do daddy proud and see “The Stepfather.” GRADE: B

Friday, October 16, 2009

In the Bedroom: If You Don’t Want to Be Scared Don’t See “Paranormal Activity”

“Paranormal Activity” is a hyped movie that is actually worth being hyped. I’m going to be honest and say that I seriously had trouble sleeping the night after seeing this movie. Every time I woke up during the night it was difficult to fall back to sleep. There are so many stark and disturbing images in “Paranormal Activity” they’re most likely going to stay with you for days. I’m sure by now you’ve seen all the ads for this movie which have been touting that you should DEMAND IT to be shown in your local multiplex. It’s a cheaply (it cost $11,000) yet expertly made horror flick with an unusual marketing strategy. Paramount who bought the distribution rights said if the film’s website reached one million demands it would release the film nationwide. It was a marketing ploy that was unique, pretentious and dare I say ingenious.

“Paranormal Activity” is really scary. It’s being compared mostly to “the Blair Witch Project” because it’s shot by the actors with Hi-Def video cameras in a low budget, cinéma vérité style. You know what that means? Shaky cinematography that will most likely make those who puked during “Blair Witch” do the same here. Of course there have been plenty of films like it since the 1999 horror phenom ("Cloverfield," "Quarantine"), so we should all be used to this type of film by now. Also, this new film doesn’t tout the movie as being based on any true story and doesn’t dupe you into thinking it’s real. That was Blair Witch’s trick. There are no credits in “Paranormal Activity.” Not even end credits. It’s a bizarre move that works for this film.

So what the heck is this must see flick all about anyways? We’re introduced to a young couple. There’s Micah (Micha Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston) who have been together for about three years and have just moved into a nice, modern-looking home. It’s not a creepy place at all. They’ve been noticing some strange disturbances in the house and therefore Micah makes the decision to buy a fancy camera to try to capture any paranormal activity. Like I said the film is the footage that is shot mostly by Micah and some instances Katie. It turns out Katie has had paranormal incidents happen to her throughout her life and that whatever it is roaming their house at night is after her. They invite a psychic over (Mark Fredrichs) who deals with ghosts but isn’t prepared for what he believes is a demonic presence in the home. Katie is scared and gets more scared as the film goes on. Micah, being the typical alpha male, feels the need to protect Katie. That’s all fine and dandy, but you certainly don’t want to piss off a demon.

The film builds and builds and builds. It piles dread on top of dread. It’s claustrophobic (the movie never leaves the house) and creepy. The film alternates between what I call the “daytime scenes” in which Micah and Katie discuss the goings on and we seem them interact as a couple in distress, and the “nighttime scenes” in which we see footage of Micah and Katie sleeping. Micah has set up a tripod and set his camera to record in night vision throughout the night. These are where the film really grabs a hold of you. Each evening something stranger and more disturbing happens, which I refuse to describe for you. Let’s just say things start to escalate tremendously as the film progresses. I believe this couple as real people. The acting is as good as a film like this requires. They seem like real people. They do things real people would do. They do smart things and they do really stupid things.

I said the film was made for about $11,000. There are no real special effects, which is surprising because the film does show much than “Blair Witch” project and yet it remains totally believable and realistic and that’s why the film is so powerful. According to imdb fourteen people worked on the film (not including the handful of actors who appear in the movie). The director Oren Peli also produced, wrote and edited the film. There is no music; the film’s scary sound design is the score. You will see images that will stay in your head for a while.

“Paranormal Activity” is a haunting film that is a guaranteed fright. I’d be lying if I said at least one part literally made me jump out of my seat. And I’m not talking about the hairy spider that makes a brief cameo. This is an innovative and smart film that deserves to be seen, if you dare. GRADE: A-

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Price is Right: Michael Moore’s At It Again with “Capitalism: A Love Story”

I’m going to get this out of the way right now. My knowledge of capitalism is limited to that when I go to Best Buy to buy movies that is capitalism. You see I was a Communications major in college and instead of being productive and taking, oh I don’t know, a useful class like Economy I was busy taking The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock. Not that you can’t learn a lot from the movies. And that brings me to what this review is about. Everyone’s (and by everyone I mean liberals) favorite muckraker Michael Moore’s latest film is about how capitalism in our American society is evil and how it benefits the rich (ie corporations) and negatively affects the poor (ie Hurricane Katrina victims). Say what you want about Moore he makes entertaining movies.

Of course taking his side always makes his movies more entertaining. And since I’m mostly on his side. (I wouldn’t call myself a Michael Moore fanatic by any means, but I find the information in his films to be interesting and of importance, although I know that it’s not always 100% the truth). I enjoyed “Capitalism A Love Story” mostly because he uses lots of vintage film clips, memorable music scores and oodles of stock footage. The opening credits of the film show various bank robbers caught on security cameras. Its pretty cool that he can make a statement so quickly without saying a word. I gather that he’s going to proclaim capitalism as an evil thing that makes people resort to robbery as a means of minimalist survival. I think I’m right.

The usual Michael Moore antics are firmly in place. As the film progresses he shows how the corporations received so much bailout money to help the ailing economy and yet these people in high up positions used the money to give their executives bonuses. We’d like our money back please. Moore storms the various banks’ headquarters in New York City where he’s confronted by security guards (who are probably only making minimum wage anyways). Moore uses humor to make a lot of his points and that’s a good thing. Humor is something that makes us human and if we can laugh at a serious situation maybe more people would be willing to listen. I mean his last film, Sicko, which dealt with the health care crisis in this country was one of his funniest films and yet it had touching moments that brought tears to your eyes. The same thing here.

Moore interviews many people. There are people whose homes were pretty much stolen away from them by their banks because they couldn’t afford their mortgage payments. I am not a homeowner but I know that foreclosure is not a word you want to hear. He even talks about how major companies take out life insurance policies on its employees so that when they die, the company makes thousands or even millions of dollars. (Don’t believe me? Go to That’s messed up if you ask me. Moore gives us the ins and outs of capitalism and how it has changed throughout US history. It seemed to be working just fine after World War II and he basically blames Ronald Regan for everything that has happened economically through today. At least he has confidence that our new president Barack Obama will help out and bring the necessary changes to our failing financial system.

“Capitalism: A Love Story” is a funny film and it’s a sad film. And I would call it an important film. I don’t care what side of the political fence you are on or whether you can for Michael Moore’s silly tricks. This guy is a filmmaker first and foremost and continues to makes some of the most interesting and entertaining documentaries out there. Love him or hate him Moore is never boring. “Capitalism” doesn’t come close to reaching the power and importance of his masterpiece “Bowling for Columbine” but it’s a relevant film that dares to ask the tough questions. Help stimulate the economy and see it. GRADE: B

Monday, October 05, 2009

Liar Liar: Ricky Gervais Can’t Handle the Truth in “The Invention of Lying”

“The Invention of Lying” is probably one of the more intelligent and socially aware comedies you’re likely to see this year. The film takes place in a world where no one has developed the ability to tell a lie. Everything anyone says is the truth. There is no modesty or flattery. People can’t even make up stories, which means that when you go to a movie in this world, you end up watching a lecture about some fragment of history. People are completely blunt in this world. If a woman thinks a man is ugly she tell him to his face. If a man thinks a woman is fat he’ll tell her to her face. Of course, for Mark Bellison (a Ricky Gervais-type character played by Ricky Gervais) this is not the ideal way to live and one day he figures out that if he says something that is not true, anyone will believe it.

The film opens up as Mark is meeting Anna (Jennifer Garner, who’s wonderful here) for a blind date. She’s frank with him and says it took her a while to open the front door because she was, uh, playing with herself. She also says that she’s not really into Mark and thinks he’s not attractive and that he’s fat. Later on at the dinner table she talks to her mother on the phone and says that she won’t be sleeping with Mark after dinner. She says she has no interest in him romantically because she needs an attractive man with good genes to have children with. Pretty blunt right?

The next day at work Mark’s secretary (Tina Fey) informs him that he’s going to get fired. Mark works for Lecture Films where he “writes movies” about historical events. Of course he gets the boring century of the 1300s where not much exciting happened. His jerk co-worker Brad played by a perfectly cast Rob Lowe frankly says how much Mark’s movies suck. And on top of it, it turns out Mark does get fired. And now he wont have money for rent, so his landlord says if he doesn’t give him $800 for rent, he’ll be thrown out.

Mark goes to the bank to withdraw all that he has left from his savings account, which is only $300. The teller informs him that their computers are down and that if he knows how much is in his account she’ll just give him the money. Somewhere in his brain synapses start firing and he blurts out $800. The computers come right back up and even though it says there’s only $300 in his account the teller takes his lie for the truth and hands over all the dough. Mark instantly sees this as the opportunity of a lifetime and even tests his new invention by telling a complete stranger on the street that if she doesn’t have sex with him right away the world is going to end.

“The Invention of Lying,” which was co-written and co-directed by Gervais and Matthew Robinson, is one of those high concept comedies that start off as silly and funny and actually end up being pretty profound and intelligent. And in fact they make a pretty bold statement in the film because in this world of the truth, there is no religion. When Mark’s mother is sick in the hospital, the nurses and doctors overhear him telling her that if she dies there’s a wonderful world waiting for her and the next day Mark becomes a Jesus-like figure where pretty much the entire human race wants to know what happens after you die. A scene, in which he reveals ten truths told to him by some guy in the sky, is played wonderfully. It’s something you just have to see.
“The Invention of Lying” is a smart comedy that is funny and pretty profound. It has a lot to say without ever sounding preachy and it has romantic elements without ever being cheesy and it has funny scenes without ever seeming desperate for a laugh. Gervais was tailor-made for this role and if you’re a big fan of his you’d be doing yourself a favor by seeing this film. And that’s the truth. GRADE: B+

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Brain Food: “Zombieland” is a Smart and Amusing Zombie Comedy

Let’s get the comparisons out of the way first. “Zombieland” can easily be written off as a dumbed-down, pop culture savvy reworking of England’s “Shaun of the Dead.” “Shaun of the Dead” worked so well because it was really able to find a great tone between horror and comedy and saw the comical potential when it came to zombies. “zombieland” while yes technically a comedy with zombies, is nothing like “Shaun of the Dead” in style or execution. It finds its own groove and it is clever and humorous and a complete joy to sit through (as joyous as a movie with gory zombie violence can be).

“Zombieland” takes place, I believe, in the present day world. A horrible virus has broken out which turns people into scary, ravaging beasts in search of human flesh. And like all zombie mythology, if you’re bitten you’ll become one as well. Most of the human population has died off and the world is pretty much a vast wasteland. There are abandoned vehicles and homes all over. Grocery stores are empty except for the random food items not claimed by survivors.

We’re introduced to Columbus (played by always reliably awkward Jesse Eisneberg) who’s a young college student from Ohio. He’s never really been too close with his family, but after the outbreak started he decided to travel back home to see whether his parents are zombie-free. So he’s on the road all by himself and he’s created a set of rules for surviving in Zombieland. One rule for instance, is cardio. You must be fit and quick as it’s the slow, obese people who were wiped out first. Another rules is to beware of bathrooms, because the zombies always seem to attack when you’re most vulnerable. He makes a new rule when he meets up with roughneck Tallahassee (a wonderful Woody Harrelson). He’s from Florida (If you haven’t figured out by now, the characters refer to themselves as the place where they’re from, pretty ingenious). Tallahassee, while reluctant to team up with this young geeky kid, teaches him how to enjoy the little things in life (ie: Twinkies).

These two guys soon meet up with a pair of equally tough sisters played by Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin. These girls are hard asses and though Tallahasse and Columbus for a loop when they con them into stealing their vehicle and weapons. The weapons consist of the likes of hedge clippers and pickaxes and baseball bats. Eventually this strange foursome bands together in the hopes of riding out the zombie epidemic and trying desperately to survive. Part of this plan includes holding up in a mansion owned by a celebrity of which I will not name (just go to imdb, you cheater). This sequence contains probably one of the best cameos of recent memory and not just because of who this person is, but how writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick handle it.

And this brings me to the fact that these two writers, who haven’t really done too much and first time feature director Ruben Fleischer have crafted a remarkable enjoyable and smart movie. This is a flick that finds just the right tone. It’s scary when it needs to be scary and funny when it needs to be funny. It even has some heart. Will the viriginal Columbus core with Emma Stone’s Wichita? You’ll have to see it to find out. And like all well-made comedies, it has its brain right where it should be. This is not a movie you have to turn your mind off to enjoy. Look at the way Fleischer incorporates Columbus survival rules into the film. It’s well done and hilarious.

“Zombieland” was an extremely pleasant surprise. It comes just at the perfect moment in time. In this day and age with the state of things politically and economically, it’s great to just get away. But it’s even better to escape into an “escapist” movie that isn’t just dumb. It’s smart and entertaining. Zombieland is a kick-ass ride. GRADE: A-