Category Archives: 2009

Mesmerize Me (2009, Kate Hackett)

Mesmerize Me is frustratingly middling. It keep seems like it has to be going somewhere, only for it to go nowhere. It’s not a short short—it’s twenty-four minutes—and there’s a disjointed act structure. The third act is way too short, leveraging the “twist” ending way too much. Only it’s not a twist ending. It’s not exactly predictable, but only because it’s such an unbelievably tepid finish you don’t want to anticipate it. You’re hoping for something better.

The short is a period piece set in the late 1800s California. Good costumes, okay locations, not great attention to detail on making things dirty—clothes and people, competent direction, shallow but not inept cinematography (by Cat Deakins), and good music (by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum). If it were even slightly sensational, Mesmerize Me might at least come off as a romance novel cover turned into a movie. But it’s not sensational. At all. Even when it ought to be, like when lead Natalie Smyka seduces her opium-addicted fake doctor Cameron Cash while her parents are asleep elsewhere in the house.

Me opens perfectly solidly with Smyka seeing the ghostly apparition of her dead fiancé (Ned Hosford). Smyka’s really good running around in a panic and she’s got great expressions throughout the short. She doesn’t have any good line deliveries, but her expressions are awesome. Though it’s never believable she likes Cash at all because Cash is unlikable. Not because of the opium or because he’s a know-it-all. Cash is a mesmerist. Either Mesmerize Me takes place in a fantasy world where mesmerism isn’t bullshit or it takes place in some kind of reality. Writer (and director and editor) Hackett implies the latter a lot, but never definitely says the former is out. If we’re supposed to accept the ending, we also have to take Cash believing in his own “powers” too.

It’s problematic.

Also problematic is how it always seems like the characters are going to have a good conversation than Hackett cuts the shot. After a while (where the runtime works against the short)… it seems like Hackett’s cutting away from even worse line deliveries. Like it’s obvious Smyka and Cash couldn’t handle more.

Sarah Lilly plays Smyka’s mom. She’s kind of disappointing too. John Beck is fine as the dad, though his lack of interest in his daughter’s condition doesn’t come across right.

Hackett’s direction and editing instincts are often good; they can’t save Me from itself.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Written, directed, and edited by Kate Hackett; director of photography, Cat Deakins; music by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum; production designer, Matthew C.W. Page; produced by Nora Gruber, Hackett, Brian Maddox, Bette Stockton, and Christopher Stockton for Sonambula Productions.

Starring Natalie Smyka (Estella), Cameron Cash (Daniel), Sarah Lilly (Eliza), John Beck (Lawrence), and Ned Hosford (Stephen).


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Triangle (2009, Christopher Smith)

Triangle suffers. It suffers from a bad script, it suffers from wanting performances, it suffers… bad hair continuity. There’s just something off about lead Melissa George’s bangs. Not just she doesn’t seem to acknowledge when they’re in the way, but when she turns around (in an obvious cut because there’s so much post-production on the lighting you can tell) and the position doesn’t quite match. Or the length.

There’s just something… off about them.

Kind of like George’s performance.

The film relies on a lot of twists and turns to get through. I was going to say to justify itself but the twists and turns aren’t really for narrative justification, they’re to kill time. Triangle builds towards reveals, it doesn’t build characters. Even when character development is intricately tied to the reveals, well, writer and director Smith still isn’t going to build character. Though it wouldn’t exactly be easy with his cast. Because something feels a little off about them too.

One might guess it’s because they’re a bunch of Aussies pretending to do an American movie. They’ve all got “American” accents, which don’t ever drop out but they also exaggerate the narrative distance from the characters. Not a good thing in a horror movie where you’re ostensibly supposed to care once they start dropping like flies.

The film starts with George going on a yacht day with local rich guy (presumably) Michael Dorman. She’s a waitress he knows, so he invites her for this annual yachting trip. He always takes friends Henry Nixon and Rachael Carpani, who always bring a girl to fix him up with (this time it’s Emma Lung). Except, of course, Dorman wants George along. Carpani doesn’t like it because single mom George must be a gold digger. Carpani’s character is odious, which makes it all the less fun to have her around once she’s in danger, because Smith doesn’t care if you empathize with any of the cast. And most of them aren’t sympathetic.

Also along for the trip is young stud Liam Hemsworth, who was homeless but now lives on Dorman’s yacht with him and knows how to tie knots and do all the other important yachting stuff. There’s some confusion about why Dorman needs a hunk around but at least Hemsworth is likable. There’s something creepy about Dorman and his Robin Hood beard and something’s clearly going on with George and the movie is obviously manipulating the audience about it.

So is it worth it?

Heck no.

Smith knocks off a couple famous movies for Triangle; visually, The Shining, narratively… well, if I told you it’d be too much of a spoiler. Suffice it to say, Smith’s not just not reinventing the wheel with his tricky story, he’s not even worried about keeping the tire inflated. He’s really lazy with the logic. Really lazy. He goes for visual shock value and often gets it; his special effects team, lighting mismatches aside, is phenomenal. More than half the movie takes place on this old, abandoned cruise ship with Shining hallways and Triangle makes it look real big, even when it’s kind of clear it’s not and they’re just adjusting the lighting to lens flare for emphasis.

So technically it’s fine. It’s just got a dumb script and an either not trying hard enough or just not able to do it lead with George. After a while you wish George’s bangs would do the acting heavy lifting because George obviously isn’t up for it. She does fear well like twice, then never again. And her messy arc, even with Smith’s questionable scripting, does have a lot of potential for the right performance.

George’s isn’t it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Christopher Smith; director of photography, Robert Humphreys; edited by Stuart Gazzard; music by Christian Henson; production designer, Melinda Doring; produced by Julie Baines, Chris Brown, and Jason Newmark; released by Icon Film Distribution.

Starring Melissa George (Jess), Michael Dorman (Greg), Liam Hemsworth (Victor), Rachael Carpani (Sally), Henry Nixon (Downey), Emma Lung (Heather), and Joshua McIvor (Tommy).


Halloween II (2009, Rob Zombie)

The only good thing about Halloween II are the end credits. They run like nine minutes, meaning the movie is closer to ninety-five minutes than 105. Even though the ninety-five minutes feels like an eternity.

The movie starts with director Zombie making fun of the idea of making another Halloween II. He’s not remaking Halloween II; well, he does for the first twenty-five minutes of the movie but only to make fun of the idea of remaking Halloween II. It’s kind of the best sequence in the movie? If only because there’s not as much cynicism as the rest of the picture. Less cynicism, less “lead” Scout Taylor-Compton trying to emote, less Sheri Moon Zombie as a color inverted Morticia Adams ghost making scary-ish faces as she inspires Tyler Mane to kill people. It’s a hallucination but not. Chase Wright Vanek, as the young version of Mane, is also in the scenes. He could be worse. Moon Zombie couldn’t be worse, but Vanek has some lines in the prologue and he’s atrocious so it’s a surprise when he’s better later. Because he doesn’t get dialogue. It’s a good move from Zombie amid a film full of bad moves.

After the riff on the original Halloween II, Zombie jumps ahead a year to Taylor-Compton trying to recover from her trauma. Meanwhile, Malcolm McDowell is on a book tour capitalizing on Taylor-Compton’s trauma. McDowell’s not good and the part’s thinly written–all the parts in the film are paper thin–but he’s bad in entertaining ways. Taylor-Compton isn’t bad in entertaining ways. She’s got a terrible part and gives a terrible performance in it. She’s living with fellow Halloween I survivor Danielle Harris and her dad, sheriff Brad Dourif.

Harris is just about the only likable character in the film. She also doesn’t give a terrible performance. Many of the cast give terrible performances, so Harris is constant refreshing. Dourif’s haircut gives more of a performance than the actor, which is too bad. It’s a crappy part though.

The worst supporting performance is Angela Trimbur. She’s one of Taylor-Compton’s friends; she gets to personify Zombie’s prevailing conjecture in the film–empathy doesn’t exist, which is problematic because Taylor-Compton’s only in her current situation because of empathy. Halloween II is the perfect storm of cynicism and stupidity, with Zombie trying to cushion the stupidity in symbolism so he can get away with it. But it’s stupid symbolism so who cares.

The best cameo performance is Bill Fagerbakke as a deputy. The worst is Mark Boone Junior. Margot Kidder is somewhere in between, mostly because her therapist isn’t believable at all.

Technically, the film’s competent. Brandon Trost’s photography is definitely competent. Glenn Garland and Joel T. Pashby’s editing gets all the jump scares. Zombie relies heavily on them. He starts with gore, then he goes to jump scares. They’re effective but entirely cheap.

Tyler Bates’s music… could be worse.

Garreth Stover’s production design–presumably under Zombie’s instruction–is grungy to the point of absurdity. Since surviving their serial killer attacks, Taylor-Compton and Harris have apparently embraced nihilism based on their interior decorating but never in their characters. Taylor-Compton’s behavior sometimes flips scene-to-scene so Zombie can move things along. It’s not like she’d have essayed the role better if the writing were better.

Trost’s photography holds things together. Without it, the movie would be stagy. If the acting were better. And if Zombie cared about the acting. It’s really bad.

But it could be worse. It could be much, much worse. The end credits could run eight minutes instead of nine and there might be another whole insufferable minute of content to Halloween II.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Rob Zombie; screenplay by Zombie, based on characters created by John Carpenter and Debra Hill; director of photography, Brandon Trost; edited by Glenn Garland and Joel T. Pashby; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, Garreth Stover; produced by Malek Akkad, Andy Gould and Zombie; released by Dimension Films.

Starring Scout Taylor-Compton (Laurie Strode), Tyler Mane (Michael Myers), Malcolm McDowell (Dr. Samuel Loomis), Brad Dourif (Sheriff Lee Brackett), Sheri Moon Zombie (Deborah Myers), Danielle Harris (Annie Brackett) and Brea Grant (Mya Rockwell)


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Creation (2009, Jon Amiel)

Creation is the not the story of how Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) and the ghost of his oldest daughter (Martha West) collaborated in the writing of On the Origin of Species. That story would make a much better movie.

The film opens with a title card explaining it will be about Darwin writing that book, released in 1859. Some conversation early on places the present action in 1858. So a year. At this point, it’s been twenty years since he published Voyage of the Beagle. Some of those adventures show up in flashback–a flashback’s flashback–as Bettany recounts stories to West.

Well, at the beginning. Then not. The Beagle flashbacks are the biggest budgeted sequences in Creation and director Amiel treats them as set pieces. Only then such flashbacks (in flashbacks) stop and so do set pieces. Instead, it’s just Bettany hanging around at home, making churchy wife Jennifer Connelly real upset with his blasphemous manuscript and research. It seems like this narrative floundering is covering a lot of time but it turns out it isn’t. Amiel and screenwriter John Collee are terrible at pacing. Why do they need pacing when they can have Bettany talk to West (not an actual ghost, just a narrative contrivance). If only the exposition moved the film along.

After a promising first act, Creation settles into that “ghost” story. Amiel and Collee tease out details of West’s death in the present while flashing back, at first, to unrelated family bonding scenes. The flashbacks eventually get confusing because Bettany’s makeup for Darwin age forty-nine is bald with stringy hair, very pasty skin, a paunch. The film skips back seven and eight years to the West flashbacks–those seven actual years in between Darwin’s daughter’s death and the Species’s completion are apparently empty of worthy story material. Darwin age forty-two makeup is bald with stringy hair, mildly pasty skin, general nineteenth century upper class flab. It’s not hard to tell them apart, but only because Bettany’s good. But in terms of filmmaking–Amiel’s direction, Jess Hall’s flat photography–well, it’s good they have Bettany.

Also because it’s an entirely thankless part. Collee’s script is deceptively worse than first impression. It’s not bland biopic stuff, it’s bland biopic stuff without any characters. Amiel, whose direction is never better than mediocre (outside the special effects sequences of animal decomposition and so on), he at least tries occasionally. He really likes his close-ups. So the actors can spout either ominous lines (because of hiding daughter West’s fate in flashback) or exposition.

While Bettany’s got it bad, he at least gets to walk around in his make-up. Connelly is left to take care of the kids and give disapproving looks when Bettany doesn’t take his “war on God” seriously. And Connelly never really gets a role. She ends up with one poorly written, well-acted scene. It’s exceptionally impressive filmmaking from Amiel, Hall, and editor Melanie Oliver. It’s this entirely manipulative, cheap, soapy scene and it still works. Because Bettany and Connelly. Connelly gets some character motivation at what might as well be the end of the movie. There’s still more movie and it’s bad, but that moment is when Creation could’ve got out in the black.

But it doesn’t. Because Amiel and Collee are entirely artless with Creation. They want all to benefits of melodramatic contrivances without ever embracing those contrivances. There’s also the issue of how the film characterizes the religious. Caricaturizes. Connelly and Jeremy Northam (extended cameoing as the village clergy) are inappropriately villainized. But meaning they need to be villainized differently. There’s no dramatic fodder in it as is.

Bettany’s good. Not great. Better than decent or fine. West is decent. Connelly is problematic; the part’s crap. Northam’s cameo is too thin. Ditto Toby Jones. He’s bombastic though. Energy is a lot in Creation, as the film stops producing any once the second act hits. Benedict Cumberbatch is good. He tries.

If there’s a great film about the final year of Darwin writing Species, Creation sure ain’t it. Amiel’s just too bland a director to save the film from the script. It could’ve at least maintained mediocre, but as it becomes more and more clear how bad Collee’s plotting and pacing is going to get… well, mediocre’s way out of reach.

The awful Christopher Young score doesn’t help either.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Amiel; screenplay by John Collee, based on a story by Amiel and Collee and a book by Randal Keynes; director of photography, Jess Hall; edited by Melanie Oliver; music by Christopher Young; production designer, Laurence Dorman; produced by Jeremy Thomas; released by Icon Film Distribution.

Starring Paul Bettany (Charles Darwin), Jennifer Connelly (Emma Darwin), Martha West (Annie Darwin), Jeremy Northam (Reverend Innes), Benedict Cumberbatch (Joseph Hooker), Jim Carter (Parslow), Bill Paterson (Dr. Gully), and Toby Jones (Thomas Huxley).


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