Archive for March 2012

The Moth Diaries

March 31, 2012

Rachel Klein’s well-regarded 2002 young-adult novel The Moth Diaries plays with the perceptions of a disturbed girl, whose father committed suicide. At the boarding school she attends, she encounters a dark, mysterious girl, Ernessa, whom she believes to be a vampire. Unnamed in the novel, the heroine is presented as an unreliable narrator, and her fear and dread can be explained as a melodramatic girl’s cracked filter on such hot-button issues as anorexia, sexuality, and the love that dares not speak its name. But movies aren’t as deft at ambiguity; they literalize everything they show us, or, at least, a movie as squarely conceived as this one.

The Moth Diaries is atmospheric but very slight. It’s supposed to be about a girl, here named Rebecca (Sarah Bolger), who must fight the psychological pull of self-annihilation. The supposed vampire (Lily Cole, looking like Carroll Borland in 1935’s Mark of the Vampire) seems to know everything about Rebecca’s tragic past, and beckons her to death in various dream sequences. Ernessa also befriends Rebecca’s BFF Lucy (Sarah Gadon), gradually draining her essence, or so it appears. All of this could still come across as ambiguous, and the writer-director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page) is certainly no stranger to warped narratives about self-deluding protagonists. But Harron seems on autopilot here. What’s missing is the allure of death, whether this is an actual vampire film or a psychodrama about a girl who’s read too much Dracula and Carmilla in her fiction class.

The movie runs only 82 minutes (including credits) but feels twice as long. The usually reliable cinematographer Declan Quinn (Leaving Las Vegas) tamps his palette way down, shooting everything through drab blue filters. Harron doesn’t edit to move the film along — she just lets each scene dribble to a conclusion. After the early scenes, which establish some sort of normalcy between Rebecca and her friends at the boarding school, the movie loses all humor and attends to Rebecca’s increasingly emo mood. We’re stuck with rote, tired stuff about rigid schoolmarms and a professor (Scott Speedman) who admired the poetry of Rebecca’s dad and seems to have a fixation on her. Or does he? The problem with a movie this unimaginative and amorphous that tries to be ambiguous is that we’re not sure how to take anything it shows us. Ambiguity becomes meaningless game-playing.

The young Irish actress Sarah Bolger tries hard, but as written Rebecca is too boringly straight-arrow to make us feel that her mask of sanity is about to slip. (Compare The Moth Diaries with Neil Jordan’s underseen masterpiece The Butcher Boy for an instructive lesson in how a fragmented adolescent mind can be conveyed on film.) Ernessa, as written here, has no personality other than the weird traits that Rebecca can construe (or misconstrue) as supernatural. In a night scene, Rebecca and another friend witness Ernessa apparently passing through the closed glass window of her bedroom. The movie seems to forget that once it establishes that someone other than Rebecca has seen something that can’t be logically explained, the ambiguity is dead and we’re looking at a lukewarm teen horror film. Mary Harron, who hadn’t directed a feature film in six years, must have been attracted to the book’s is-she-or-isn’t-she narrative. She doesn’t seem the type to jump onto the Twilight bandwagon (though Klein’s novel preceded Stephenie Meyer’s). But she toys very feebly with this story’s elements, ending up with a goth version of the god-awful lesbian boarding-school drama Lost and Delirious, only without the eroticism. In a movie full of blood fantasies and predatory intentions, that’s a big “only.”

The Hunger Games

March 24, 2012

To those scandalized by the kids-on-kids violence in The Hunger Games: you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The movie, based on the first in Suzanne Collins’ young-adult dystopian trilogy, will clearly make enough bank to justify adapting the subsequent two books, and the third book, Mockingjay, is shot through with nightmarish war imagery: a man’s legs blown off, another man melted by some sort of death ray, the gory limbs of children scattered everywhere. Before we get there, though, there’s this first entry, which has been handled with a certain amount of taste. The brutality, when it comes, is glimpsed fearfully, not lingered over. The titular Hunger Games, which pit 24 “tributes” from ages 12 to 18 against each other in a vast arena, don’t look remotely fun. There’s very little triumph or exultation upon killing someone, just a sickened relief that someone else is dead and you aren’t. Yet.

I was unprepared for how quietly engaging, almost contemplative, The Hunger Games is. I enjoyed Collins’ books, narrated by sullen heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who enters the Games in the place of her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields). We’re in some horrid far-flung future where America has been divided into poverty-stricken districts (Katniss is from District 12, the coal-mining segment) under the iron rule of a fascist government operating out of a central, one-percenter-filled Capitol and headed by the vicious gray eminence President Snow (Donald Sutherland, looking as though he wants another cat to kill as in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 but having to settle for a Katniss). Katniss goes to the Games with another boy from District 12, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who secretly loves her and then lets millions of viewers in on this on TV. Yes, everything’s on TV. But will the revolution be televised?

Katniss’ glum, matter-of-fact narration from the books is gone here, and maybe the movie could’ve used it. Director Gary Ross, who worked on the script with Collins and Billy Ray, tries to do as much without words as possible. I frankly don’t know how much of the movie will be clear to non-readers; with Katniss’ first-person-present-tense inner monologue gone, nobody explains to us why Peeta seems to throw in with some brutal “career” tributes, and the urgency of Katniss’ having to keep up the “starcrossed lovers” ruse between her and Peeta seems undercooked. A lot of the movie, in fact, is under-emphatic; it seems to take its cue and tone from the mournful twang of the score by T-Bone Burnett and James Newton Howard. The narrative itself guarantees suspense, but Gary Ross seems consciously to disregard excitement in favor of bedraggled burnout.

Jennifer Lawrence is in almost every frame, and she communicates the Encyclopedia Britannica with tiny shifts in expression. She has to, because Katniss, who’s from stoic coal-miner stock, doesn’t talk much. The movie, which still tips the scales at two hours and twenty-two minutes, doesn’t have time to get into the culture and politics of the Capitol; we somewhat lose track of Katniss’ mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and advisor Effie (an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks), though Gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), hardly seen at all in the book, gets more screen time than I expected. It’s all on Katniss’ shoulders, and Lawrence carries it with quiet grace. Her scenes with Amandla Stenberg as Rue, a tiny young tribute who allies with Katniss, constitute a fine mini-movie in themselves.

The Hunger Games has its problems — according to the movie, the corpses of the fallen tributes seem to be just left there to rot, instead of being airlifted immediately as in the books, which removes some urgency from a scene in which Katniss has to salvage a bow and a quiver of arrows (Katniss’ particular set of skills) from a recently stung-to-death tribute. But Ross doesn’t seem overly interested in the logistics of the arena or in gladiatorial thrills; he stays inside Katniss’ emotions and perceptions (most effectively in a trippy passage when Katniss herself is stung and hallucinates). I should say for the record that the thought of teenage girls, as well as many others who are neither teenage nor female, responding so readily to the story of an honorable, heroic and self-sufficient girl warms me far more than the thought of teenage girls swooning over a love triangle between a non-entity, a sparkly vampire and a werewolf. The Hunger Games stomps the Twilight saga flat, and though I found those films somewhat amusing, this one is the real deal, pointing the way for two sequels that will get much more real and give the mass audience food for thought about violence, war, the power of the 99%, propaganda, and the truism that until everyone is free, nobody is free.

21 Jump Street

March 18, 2012

What was the appeal of the cop show 21 Jump Street to young audiences? It seemed preachy, and its subtext was that the cool, mysterious new kid in your high-school class could be an undercover cop. (The obvious answer is not to trust any new kids.) I remember the show being somewhat ironically enjoyed, much like its near-contemporary Beverly Hills 90210. Like The Mod Squad, it tried to tackle tough issues relevant to Today’s Youth, but a network television series could only tackle so hard back in the ’80s. The new 21 Jump Street movie lampoons the typical 21 Jump Street episode, with added fish-out-of-water jokes involving how much high-school culture changes in only seven years. It’s no longer considered cool to be aggressive and dismissive of passion; now everyone is sensitive and socially committed.

The movie sends inept twentysomething cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) back to high school to bust up a drug ring. The narcotic all the kids are taking is some new synthetic mind-blaster that works in hilariously specific stages. This 21 Jump Street is neither pro- nor anti-drug, but mines a lot of humor from its effects, especially when Schmidt and Jenko are obliged to try the drug to prove to the school’s dealer that they’re not narcs. If there was ever an episode where Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise had to shove their fingers down each other’s throats so they’d vomit up a drug, then failed and had to contend with a track coach whose head kept changing into animals and ice cream cones, I must’ve missed it.

The young directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) hedge their bets entertainingly by filling the movie’s margins with ironclad comedy professionals; Rob Riggle, for instance, turns up as the aforementioned track coach, Ellie Kemper and Chris Parnell are also on the faculty, the formidable Nick Offerman appears too briefly as the cops’ deputy chief, and none other than Ice Cube is the captain of the Jump Street program. (The movie goes excessively meta for a minute or so when NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” invades the soundtrack, ending on a shot of Ice Cube, looking as angry as he sounded on that song.) For nostalgic fans of the show, no fewer than three of its actors walk on here; sorry, but that sort of thing is what the too-serious Miami Vice film needed.

Hill and Tatum make a natural Mutt and Jeff team, and when I laughed, which was fairly often, Hill was responsible — though I became an instant fan of Tatum’s chemistry-class ode to the wonders of potassium nitrate, and Brie Larson as Hill’s romantic interest has some terrific dry line readings. The movie is perfectly pleasant, a smidgen too aware of itself (though the “why didn’t that explode?” running gag during a car chase pays off nicely) but consistently sharp; the party scene midway through is wilder and funnier than the entirety of the recent party movie Project X (which, like this film, was written by Michael Bacall — small world). It’s been getting a tad overpraised, perhaps because everyone’s surprised it isn’t completely foul; the randomness and genre-tweaking of The Other Guys hit my particular humor spot more solidly. It’s not a classic, but it’ll look just fine on cable in a couple of years, and at least it doesn’t end with a painfully earnest PSA, as some episodes of the show did. Then again, that might’ve put it over the top to genuine greatness — leave something for the DVD extras, I guess.

Silent House

March 11, 2012

Editing, said Stanley Kubrick, is what truly sets cinema apart. The medium borrows from other art forms — photography, music, theater — but cutting from this image to that image, imposing order on time and space, belongs to movies (and TV). So it’s not surprising that only a handful of feature-length “single-take” films — with no visible editing — have ever been made. Hitchcock’s Rope is probably the most famous example, but even there Hitch cheated, using clever camera moves to camouflage his edits. There haven’t been many such experiments since, though one of them was 2010’s La Casa Muda, a Uruguayan horror film, and another is its new American remake, Silent House.

Elizabeth Olsen is Sarah, who accompanies her dad (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) to their dilapidated lake house. It needs a lot of fixing up; the power’s shut off, the phones are out, and it may as well have a sign on the front lawn reading “Ideal Setting for an Inexpensive Horror Film.” The uncle gets annoyed with Sarah’s dad and takes off for a while. Sarah hears noises upstairs. Her dad goes to investigate; something happens to him. There appears to be someone in the house stalking Sarah. The movie is shot using only available light, too, so half the time we sit in the dark listening to Sarah’s tortured breathing and crying.

This is the third collaboration of husband-and-wife writer-director team Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, who divided horror fans in 2004 with Open Water. Many considered that minimalist shark-fest dull and repetitive, but I admired its sense of futility in the face of uncaring nature. Silent House isn’t nearly as absorbing. The underlit milieu occasionally produces unsettling, suggestive imagery, but the technique took me out of the movie — I was always looking for “invisible edits,” the points at which the camera pans across something dark, giving the filmmakers a chance to cut. We’re meant to be stuck right there with Sarah in her uncomprehending terror, but it just feels like a gimmick; in practice, it might as well be yet another found-footage movie.

It all leads up to an absurd twist ending that, like the one in High Tension, raises many inconvenient questions. The horror seems to shift from physical to supernatural, and then to psychological. Maybe it played better when they did it in Uruguay, but the plot contortions feel like a cheat. Without spoiling things, let’s say that Elizabeth Olsen, a good actress who sustains Sarah’s panic, is not quite physically plausible as having done the things we’re to assume Sarah has done. Silent House tries to go a long way — “88 minutes of real fear captured in real time,” claim the ads — on mood and suggestion, which is noble, I guess, but I wish it worked. And, again, the film is the new Exhibit A to prove why there aren’t many single-take films. Editing, as Kubrick knew, can do anything; it can evoke joy, sorrow, fear. Hitchcock pulled his experiment off (though people forget Rope did have one visible cut for effect), and then never did it again. It’s ironic, since I usually berate filmmakers for being too edit-happy, but purposely doing without the tool that makes cinema cinema calls attention to itself more than the most rapid-fire cutting does.

Project X

March 4, 2012

The strange thing about Project X, which concerns a high-school kid’s party gone haywire, is that we don’t particularly care about the kid or his buddies, yet we still feel a certain amount of dread about what’s to come. The kid, Thomas (Thomas Mann), is about to turn 17; his horndog friend Costa (Oliver Cooper) badgers him into throwing a party for the occasion. But not just any party; an epic party, full of booze and drugs and wanton women. Thomas has the use of his parents’ house for the weekend, and he is admonished not to mess with the Mercedes or let anyone into his dad’s office. By night’s end, the office may or may not even be left standing, and you don’t want to know about the Mercedes. There’s also a little dog involved, and I can report with some relief that the dog makes it through the bacchanal unscathed — unless he catches something from his sexual partners of varying species.

Project X is that kind of movie — loud and crude, essentially good-hearted (if there are any fights or rapes at the party, which eventually attracts somewhere around 2,000 guests, we don’t hear about them). The film’s wildness limits itself to the escalating property damage in the final reel — you’ve seen every other excess here before. Except for bits concerning the dog, I didn’t hear myself laughing. That definitely includes any scenes involving an angry little person (Martin Klebba), who stalks through the party punching anyone, male or female, in the crotch. When all else fails, I guess, haul in what Chelsea Handler fondly refers to as a “nugget.” All else fails a lot here; there’s a rather lackluster subplot — really little more than a thread — in which Thomas, nursing feelings for a girl he’s known since childhood (Kirby Bliss Blanton), falls into bed with an unattainable vixen and is caught by the heartbroken former girl.

I suppose we should be thankful that we don’t get the obligatory scene in which Costa, forever boasting of his sexual exploits back home in Queens, turns out to be a scared virgin. We do get various non-jokes about another kid (Jonathan Daniel Brown), a catatonic-looking fatty. I was unpleasantly surprised to see Miles Teller — so honest and fine in the drama Rabbit Hole — as a popular kid who drops in on the party; I felt disappointed in him almost personally for spending his time in this company. Since this is yet another “found footage” movie, it’s all shakily camcordered by a stoic AV student who doesn’t say or do much else. Does this overused technique, employed elsewhere mainly for horror films, add anything to the fun? Not really, and the movie often cheats by cutting between two geographic points; we wonder who else has a camera, who edited the footage together for our perusal, and so on.

Two younger kids hired as hapless “security” for the party — they take the job very seriously indeed until the party grows beyond anyone’s control — provide some mild amusement. Otherwise, Project X is short on fresh characterization, and it didn’t have to be that way; Dionysian bashes from Animal House to American Pie found some quirks in their kids. Thomas is just a nice-guy blank — we’re not much invested in his fate. Some of the suspense built into an illicit-party film like this lies in whether the party-throwers can cover up and clean the mess before the parents get home, but past a certain point — when news choppers buzz over the neighborhood and riot teams are called in — we figure that’s a dead issue. The movie nods at Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when the dad’s Mercedes meets its fate, complete with a similar quote (“I can’t fix this”), but it doesn’t come out of Thomas’s resentment at his dad or his Mercedes — it’s just a meaningless “oh, shit” moment. The whole film is, really.