Review: The Unborn (2009)

Looking for a lame version of The Exorcist with a Jewish exorcism instead of a Catholic one, and Gary Oldman? Look no further. Despite some interesting visuals and competent jump-scare moments, The Unborn is just that and not much more.

I actually really liked a lot of the imagery in this film. The crazy dogs, the mirrors, the very dream-like dream sequences, changing eye colors and even the done-to-death pale scary kid are all well done and fit together. But it's a pretty paint-by-numbers effort.

Odette Yustman of the much-superior Cloverfield stars as Casey Beldon, a young woman whose dreams begin to be haunted by strange creatures and the aforementioned pale scary kid, who, we know from the title, is Casey's unborn twin. Equally troubling to Casey, her mother died in an insane asylum after similar events happened to her.

Casey's boyfriend Mark (Cam Gigandet), best friend Romy (Meagan Good, playing high above the level of the film), a long-lost relative and Rabbi Sendak (Gary Oldman, playing at around the level of the film), once they get over thinking she's nuts, try everything they can think of to help. Romy is particularly entertaining in the film. It's not just that her dialogue is stupid, it's that she plays it with enthusiasm and no irony. She's very funny in the film, and Good should get some better parts.

The film is full of smack-your-head obviousness, as different characters continually breathlessly announce things we knew from the title and the opening sequence. There's plenty of folderol or whosawhatsis, too, including a long, pointless narration about the Nazi origin of the film's title specter, and the prevalence of twins in Casey's family.

There could be endless possibilities for explaining the haunting which would have been more interesting and less rote, and might have provided more opportunities to unify the story visually and leave a little mystery, but alas, this is not to be.

The exorcism itself is pretty messy as it is presented. It takes place in a weird abandoned church or synagogue which is very complicatedly presenting, but not very interesting or related to anything else. It ends with a long, anti-climactic chase scene and a teaser ending which does not make the viewer long for a sequel.

Gary Oldman is largely wasted. He provides instant credibility for any film character, but this fades as we realize his character won't have much to do, or much to do that justifies hiring Gary Oldman.

If you have to see one cheap "Un-" horror flick right now, I recommend Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, for the combat scenes. The Uninvited is slightly better overall, mostly for the performances of the actors, but the ending kind of ruins it, whereas the ending of Lycans makes it worth seeing, much more than the beginning or the middle. The Unborn bleeds momentum all along the way.

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Review: Push (2009)

Push looks pretty cool, and has a not-bad premise, similar to the TV shows "Heroes" or "Tomorrow People." The specifics of this premise are explained in a painfully boring and unimaginative opening narration/montage by Dakota Fanning, who plays Cassie Holmes--get it, Cassandra?--a "watcher," or psychic who can tell the future.

There are also "pushers," with telekinetic powers, "shadows," who can make people invisible to psychic or other detection, "shifters," who can make object look like something else, "sniffers," who can smell something and get psychic impressions off of it, "screamers," who can break stuff and kill people by yelling (like in Kung Fu Shuffle), and then there are goofers, spoofers, tweakers, eekers, uppers, downers, passers, runners, geekers, anklers and prancers. Or something. (And if you think I'm just being sarcastic, watch it yourself--Fanning trails off listing them all in a similarly disinterested way.)

See, the Nazis got together and tried to make superpsychics for wartime use during World War II. (This is the same Nazi unit which gave us the dybbuk of The Unborn, Hellboy, and who gave Indiana Jones so much trouble about the Ark, the Holy Grail and the crystal skull, presumably--they must have found Elijah's chariot wheel and translated themselves directly to heaven, leaving Hitler to die ignominously in his bunker.)

Every government since has been doing the same thing, kidnapping every superkid (or adult) they can find and giving them a drug designed to enhance and harness their abilities, but which actually kills them. Kills them, you say? Then what use are they as superpsychics? Good question. But this film clearly states that they've all been killed by experimentation--every one--until the start of this movie, set in the present. Imagine explaining that black ops line on the budget to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence year after year. "Yes, Senator, they're all dead. Every single one we've tried to alter chemically. Now we need $100 million to kidnap a new batch. Results? What do you think we've been trying to get for 50 years?!"

This does not seem to bode well for the rest of the movie's logic, and indeed, that turns out to be the case. This is a grim, confusing and often boring film that makes little sense.

The action of the film begins with Nick (played as an adult by Chris Evans) as a child, and his father, both "pushers," being chased by Henry Carver (Djimon Hounsou) and other agents of "The Division," the government agency in charge of rounding everybody up. Carver himself has the power to put thoughts and memories in people's heads so that they think they are their own.

Before meeting his certainly bad fate, Nick's father tells him he loves him, and that if a girl ever gives him a flower, he should help that girl out, to help everybody in the world. This is probably not bad general advice for almost anyone, and indeed is suspiciously like a Paul McCartney lyric, but no, his father means a very specific girl with a special role to play in saving herself, Nick and other psychics of the future. Then his father tells him to run away and "pushes" him out an air duct with his superpowers, because this looks cooler than just having him crawl.

And we haven't even gotten to the MacGuffin yet! This turns out to be a suitcase with a syringe of the now-non-deadly serum, which everybody wants--Kira, the first person to survive being injected with it, to save her own life with a booster shot, the Pop Family, a Hong Kong triad of superpsychics, who seem to want to sell it, The Division, who can't afford to let it leak, and our group of heroes, including Nick and Cassie, who have been commanded to find it by their parents in order to free the renegade psychics from government control for good.

Some of the fight scenes are good, and the production quality is top-notch, but the story is so grim, convoluted and ultimately nonsensical that the viewer gives up on the logic long before the film reaches its conclusion. The visual power of the fight scenes with their pretty neato effects is diluted by the mental calculus one must do to try to match up the combatants powers to predict an outcome. Unlike in "Heroes," where the characters and their powers are set up gradually and firmly so that interactions can make more sense to the viewer, in Push, there are just too many conflicting characters and powers in too confined a narrative space to follow it all. Poor Nick gets beaten to a pulp so many times that it starts to seem like a bad joke, or if he's not just telekinetic, but immortal. The Pop family are the only vaguely colorful characters, and they get tiresome quickly. And without giving away what it is exactly, the overarching set-up of the story is contradicted by everything that happens. Trust me, Push is best avoided.

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Review: Coraline (2009)

I don't know exactly what I expected from Henry Selick's Coraline. I sort of went in with a blank slate, hoping for something dark and as visually and emotionally rich as Selick's The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. Coraline is dark, probably too dark for very young children, and visually rich, but emotionally, I found the film a bit incomplete. (I have not read the Neil Gaiman book upon which it is based.)

There are wonders to be found, and they are truly wonderful, especially in 3-D (I viewed the film in standard format first, then in 3-D). Of these wonders, there is no question that the mouse circus is the greatest and foremost, a really--okay, amazing--sequence.

The film tells the story of a girl, Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning), newly moved to Oregon with her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman), who are writers/marketers for a gardening company. They live in a 150-year-old house they share with upstairs and downstairs neighbors, a weirdo-acrobat named Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane) upstairs, and weirdo-"actresses"--or bawdy vaudevillians--Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (Dawn French) downstairs. Another neighbor, Wybie Lovat (Robert Bailey, Jr.) lives nearby with their landlord, his grandmother, and brings Coraline a strange doll which resembles her and begins her adventure.

Like Pinocchio, Coraline is about a kid who just doesn't know how lucky it can be to have a boring life with loving, if sometimes inattentive parent(s). She creeps around an old well, longs to work in the garden, even in the rain, makes lists of things she notices about the house, visits the neighbors, and on the whole wishes her life could just be more exciting and fulfilling.

When she finds a painted-over door in the living room which leads to a bricked-over dead end, she is about to discover more adventure, and danger, than she can use. It doesn't stay bricked-over for long, but leads her, first in dreams, and later while she is awake, into a magical but off-kilter world in which her "Other" mother and father and otherworldly counterparts of her real world conspire to bring to life all of her longings for order, stability, attention, wonder and adventure. The only character who is himself, though a bit different, is Wybie's wild black cat (perfectly voiced by Keith David), who peels back some of the layers to show Coraline what she's really getting into.

Giving in to this seduction comes with a price, as Coraline discovers when she finds herself trapped there as it starts to come apart at the seams and reveal its darker, imprisoning character. And yet, the seduction is the most visually rewarding part of the film for the viewer. Here, the fairytale rule of three is followed faithfully, as Coraline is shown magical tableaus which are anything but boring. This is where we find Bobinsky's mouse circus sequence which so stands out, a magical garden made especially for her by her "Other" father (who turns out to be weak more than evil), and a Spink & Forcible stage show with an audience of Coraline, the creepy alternate Wybie, and hundreds of Scottie dogs.

The film loses a lot of momentum from here, becoming almost a cookie-cutter quest/fight for survival and rescue which probably could have been penned by any random child in the audience. This is less wonderful. Some of the visuals in this part are still jaw-dropping, and work especially well in 3-D, where more angles are created and more subtleties come to life than in plain old 2-D. But somehow the symbols which repeat and build here seem out of place. They don't quite build upon themselves like they should, or relate to Coraline's world and her fears and dreams very meaningfully. They're fun to look at, but not quite all there. Some ghosts who show up are very interesting at first, but the interest peters out. Perhaps if I had read Gaiman's book, I would have filled in with my knowledge of that to make more of it, but as it is, I have to echo Coraline's complaint about her ordinary life--that it's kind of boring. It goes on a bit too long, as well, and leads to a pretty pat, flat ending.

Leaving that aside, any kind of animation fan or Henry Selick fan will enjoy seeing the virtuoso technique and flights of fancy on display here, even if they don't quite make a symbolically complete-feeling picture overall. The combination of stop-motion, digital animation and 3-D is nothing short of stunning. The voice actors are all good, especially Keith David as the black cat, a winning character who should probably star some kind of sequel of his own. There's plenty of great, atmospheric music.

And that mouse circus is really is amazing. The black cat is satisfyingly charming and eldritch. I've seen the film twice, and will probably see it again in 3-D, because even despite its story deficiencies, it's lots of fun to see. I would not recommend it for children under 10 or so.

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Review: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

It's hard to talk about Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan's Slumdog Millionaire. Even discussing the opening sequence would give away too much of what is to come, and the way in which it is told, which is one of the chief delights of the film's story--even though I thought it would be hackneyed as I first saw it unfold. It's not at all.

On the other hand, the plot can be described generally without giving away too much more than what is apparent from trailers. Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a young man from the slums of Mumbai, India. It follows him from some of his earliest childhood memories, of the joy of being a child with his brother Salim and his mother, of the poverty and violence which are rife there, and of his first love, for a girl named Latika.

We meet Jamal halfway through his "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" run, and watch as he narrates his early life. In the flashback scenes, Jamal, Salim and Latika are each played by two different children. Ayush Mahesh Khedekar and Tanay Hemant Chheda are the youngest and middle Jamal, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail and Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala are the youngest and middle Salim, and Rubiana Ali and Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar the youngest and middle Latika. These younger actors are the heart of the film, their performances mixing and melding seamlessly with the performances of the older actors (Madhur Mittal as Salim and Freida Pinto as Latika) as we go back and forth in time with them.

Jamal, Salim and Latika leave the slums at the same time, separated from their families after a violent riot, and end up camped out in the slum of the slums, a garbage pile they share with dogs, foxes and water buffalo. Here, they are seemingly rescued by an orphanage which turns out to be run by gangsters. Jamal and Malik are separated from Latika upon their escape from this factory for child beggars and end up hustling for the rest of their childhoods, running tours and scams at the Taj Mahal, riding trains without tickets, working in restaurants. Salim eventually gets caught up in the same kind of gangsterism to which the children were once victim. Jamal becomes a "chaiwallah" or gopher at a cell-phone telemarketing center.

But Jamal never gives up on his childhood love for Latika, through separation, disappointment and betrayal. When he sees his chance to win enough money to be able to triumph over the circumstances separating him from her, he finds himself on an amazing, unbelievable winning streak on India's version of the worldwide game show.

Anil Kapoor, as the host of the game show, is the most outstanding actor besides the nine who play the three main characters of the story, his character giving him the opportunity to show quite a range of emotional levels and interest.

The film is hyperkinetic, set to a dance-music soundtrack with Hindi, English and Spanish lyrics which add to the urgency of the story, suggesting a way forward even through the harshest circumstances. This makes even the most hopeless situations seem temporary and capable of transcendence.

Some have criticized Slumdog (including a famous Indian actor who becomes one of the film's characters) for various reasons, including opportunism, "poverty tourism" and racism. There are elements of truth to these charges, but ultimately the film is a fairy tale, a rags-to-riches story which does not aspire to answer any of those charges, so it seems a bit unfair to torpedo the film for any of those reasons.

Slumdog is a rich, ebullient, sad, funny, exciting story of one young person's determination to rise above his past, universal despite its specific setting. It has a lot in common with a previous Danny Boyle effort, Millions, also about a young boy whose optimism is a bit crazy and allows him to bring possibilities out of what must seem like thin air to those not "similarly afflicted."

Finally, the storytelling device which I have tried not to give away does clearly smack of gimmickry. But in other ways, it illuminates the story in such a way that one doesn't mind very much. Like Millions, like Dickens's Oliver Twist, Slumdog Millionaire is a rousing, charming and well-told tale.

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Review: Frost/Nixon (2008)

Rather like its Best Picture co-nominee Milk, Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon, from Peter Morgan's screenplay of his stage play, effortlessly combines archival '70s news footage with its recreation of real events.

Rather unlike Milk, it does so very much with its eye on not just what television reflects to us of the real world and how people reflect that back, but, importantly, what television reflects, and says to us, that is not necessarily real at all, or more emotionally real to an audience because of the image-making nature of the medium. Frost/Nixon starts on television, with contemporaneous news reports of Nixon's resignation (featuring Nixon's real voice, but with a Langella helicopter wave), and the most important events in it are all made-for-television or with an eye on the impact David Frost's historic interview had on our nation's understanding of our worst president (up to that time).

With all of its heavy interwoven media and political themes, the film rests on the shoulders of two rather bright and winning, bravura performances, those of Michael Sheen (The Queen) as Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon.

Sheen plays Frost as a celebrity-obsessed climber with a taste for fame and wealth, who sees a rich opportunity in handling Nixon's first substantive post-resignation interview. He's charming when he needs to be, and manipulative, too, using everyone he can to further his own ambitions (heavy Nixonian echoes, explicity expanded upon in the film).

Langella is the perfect Nixon, and for some reason I didn't think he would be--maybe because he's so Nixonian anyway, I didn't think he could be so reflective of the real one's character. But he does a bang-up job, capturing his intelligence, arrogance, pathos and tragedy. There are moments looking at him you just see Nixon, which happened with Hopkins in Stone's movie, too, but not as often. The voice, the tone, the mannerisms, are all right on. The behind-the-scenes glimpses of the retired Nixon are gems. Langella certainly deserves his Best Actor nomination, though I thought it would be a supporting nod, with Sheen getting the Best Actor slot. Certainly, Sheen would fill that bill better than Brad Pitt for the bloated retread The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Other supporting performances which deserve special mention are Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell as Frost's investigative team, reporters Bob Zelnick and James Reston, Jr., respectively. Both reporters have a healthy disregard for Nixon, which Frost aims to distance himself from in order to preserve the relationship he develops with Nixon, and both get him all the information he needs to cover the journalistic ground he needs to cover. Both actors convey their professionalism, humor, and, later, frustration as they feel Nixon slipping through Frost's grasp during the interview sessions. Matthew McFadyen, played by John Birt, is Frost's producer and liaison between Frost and everyone else involved in the effort, giving him encouragement, straight talk and ringside assistance. Birt plays him with self-assurance and a real, touching concern for Frost as a person, as well as his career and success.

And then there is Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), with the small but quite memorable role of Frost's girlfriend Caroline Cushing. I felt that Hall, of all the players in Vicky, was most deserving of awards recognition for that film, and I would not have objected had she been Oscar-nominated for Frost/Nixon, either. She seems to have stepped into big parts in big films fully formed and ready to go. In both roles, in the Woody Allen and Ron Howard films, she is beautiful, deep, real and opinionated. And yet the two characters could not have less in common, even in their physicality. As Cushing she lands in Frost's lap and sticks with him, making a striking impression on all of the film's characters with whom she comes in contact, as well as on the audience. More Rebecca Hall, please.

There is a very wonderful scene on the telephone between Nixon and Frost before the last, blockbuster interview session, on Watergate. While it is entirely based upon things we know about Nixon much more than on anything factual, it tells the story so well that we wish it were true, even if it is not. It's the perfect invented dramatic scene for its place in the story. It's probably the best scene in the film, and references to it later are revelatory beyond their surface. Should Peter Morgan win an Oscar for it? Of course.

Frost/Nixon is fast-paced, fun, funny, gorgeously shot and edited, with a stellar cast and subtle, complicated messages which underlie all of that. Should it win Best Picture and Director? Of course it should.

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Review: The Uninvited (2009)

The Uninvited starts out well enough, with narration from the main character (Anna, played by Emily Browning of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events) as she describes the events which led to her mother's death and her own trip to the mental health facility from which she is about to be released.

Returning home, she finds that her family has changed more than she had thought. Her sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel, John Tucker Must Die) is frequently drunk and has a serious chip on her shoulder. Her writer father (David Strathairn, Good Night and Good Luck) seems completely in thrall to Rachel (Elizabeth Banks, W., Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Role Models) the woman who used to nurse her mother during a long illness.

Almost immediately, the visions start, first in dreams, but then during waking hours, too--the ghost of her mother, like Hamlet's father pointing a bloody finger of murder, and three mysterious children who lead Anna to clues about what may have really happened the night her mother died.

Anna's sister Alex has had her own suspicions about Rachel's possible involvement in their mother's death, and she quickly takes Anna's side when she hears of her ghostly visitations. Together they attempt to track down more information about the former nurse now living in their house. When another body of someone who might have given them more clues turns up, it looks more and more like the next target in Rachel's methodical isolation of their father could be them.

The Uninvited is pretty solid all the way through. Good acting, strange and disturbing effects, an atmosphere of tension bubbling through the events as they unfold. We happily go along with some of the unresolved plot points, as the film seems to promise a wrap-up which will be thrilling, exciting and complete.

Without giving away the ending, this is not to be. As we reach the climax of the story, things start to go haywire, to get confusing. Characters don't react how we thought they would given what we know, or have been told we know. Weirdnesses creep in which don't add much to the overall film, indeed, which seem like mistakes or bad writing, but which make us suspicious that we've been had, and not in a good way. Not taken in, as in The Sixth Sense, but lied to.

And this does turn out to be the case. The investments in the characters and their realities turn out to be a sham, and the film largely falls down around itself.

There are some very good things about the film. It may convince you never to open a suspicious garbage bag. The garbage bag as nightmare symbol is very effectively done and enjoyable. The ghosts are creepy and credible as repetitive, mechanical messengers of doom. Elizabeth Banks plays Rachel right on the line, as either a murderous wicked stepmother-to-be or a frayed, well-wishing, put-upon new girlfriend. She's the chief pleasure of the film, even if her meddling is portrayed as too heavy-handed to be believed at times.

But the ending is too disjointed, too far-fetched, too contrived to be effective. The montage which turns the story around actually tells a disappointing story about how the film never pulled the wool over anybody's eyes, but kept them blindfolded for no real purpose. The audience leaves let down and confused, and rightfully so, some trying to piece together a puzzle out of what wasn't a puzzle at all.

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