As a subcategory of the horror genre, the exorcism film does not have the best reputation. For every The Exorcist, there are a dozen Posessed’s and Beyond the Door’s. Yet, when done well, there is rarely something as profoundly [...]

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If there is a single academic that can be judged to have the most extensively permeated theories, it must be Sigmund Freud. Perched in an ivory seat of eminence in Vienna in the early 1900’s, his theories on sexuality[...]

Rarely is a screenwriting debut so full of unique voice and character as Diablo Cody’s Juno, which opened to great critical praise and cult honorifics in 2007. Now, Cody’s pen[...]

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The Devil Inside 2011 in Review A Dangerous Method Young Adult The Descendants

The days of animation resting in the children’s film genre is officially over. Dashing aside all conventions for the “cartoon,” Fernando Trueba’s Chico & Rita transcends its medium with a magically adult and sensual story about relationships, music, culture, and the importance of passion.

The film centers on three characters: Chico (Eman Xor Oña), an aspiring pianist; Rita (Limara Meneses), a singer with an incredible voice; and Havana in the year 1948. When Chico sees Rita performing in a nightclub, he immediately sets his sights on her for his partner in a competition that would bring the musical duo to New York City. Naturally, their partnership extends beyond piano keys and microphones, and their romance must battle the cultural and emotional obstacles characteristic of a classic love story.

Rather than being defined by the art, Chico & Rita’s animation and art style (spearheaded by illustrator Javier Mariscal) supports the story beautifully. The objects and characters seem to float through the sketched Havana without gravity, an effect that lends itself to scenes of dancing and music. Rita in particular is gracefully portrayed, a curvy temptress that floats from foot to foot, her body constantly shifting from one shape to another in a demonstration of extraordinarily illustrated femininity.

Perhaps the most impressive portrayal, however, is that of the city. The drawn images are remarkably detailed and richly colored. Due to the trembling animation style, the buildings appear to shift and shiver in the background, giving the impression that the city is living, breathing, participating.
This surrounding sense of color, movement, and energy goes on to support the generally vibrant tone of the film. The melancholy of the couples’ ballads, following in the bolero tradition, juxtaposes perfectly against the city’s frenetic energy. We can see from the calm elegance of their music that their love is something set apart from the hectic lives that exist in the background. The result is a very carefully painted picture that is balanced and engaging.

That Chico & Rita is a beautiful movie is clear from its opening frames; that it is a good movie is developed through every scene until the very end. While it may not add much to the classic romance formula, it works with the narrative devices that have served so well through history. In the end, it is a wonderful story of desire, both intellectual and physical, and the nature of the world, in which nothing comes easy.

Troma Entertainment has by now established an impressive reputation for heedless gore, nudity, and tackiness in the horror genre, so it is no surprise that when Troma royalty like Trent Haaga makes a film, the expectations are high. Sadly, Haaga’s Chop is a lackluster try at the horror comedy trend that fails both to amuse and terrify.

The film centers on the detestable Lance Reed (Will Keenan), an ex-druggie that is tortured and mangled throughout the film by a stranger (Timothy Muskatell) in a vague revenge plot. Lance, it seems, has committed some heinous crime against the stranger, of which he has no recollection. As the stranger, and the viewer, uncover more of Lance’s distasteful past, the stranger chops off more and more of Lance’s expendable limbs.

Playing Lance, Keenan is an over exaggerated clown channeling Robert Downey, Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, playing panic, fear, love, disappointment, depression, annoyance and all other emotions in neurotic fast talk that lacks the wit to entertain. It is difficult to determine whether it’s Adam Minarovich’s script or Keenan’s acting that makes Lance so utterly difficult to watch. He is objectively despicable with no charm or intrigue to temper it, and no matter how many ways Keenan can move his eyebrows, nothing can make us care even remotely about the character.

Naturally, if we judged every horror film over its unlikable or badly developed central characters, we’d have to throw the whole genre out the window. Perhaps if Chop supplied something decent to support its genre categorization, we would forgive it for Lance. But instead, Chop misses the mark constantly. As a horror film, it is nearly mislabeled: there is no suspense, no pop out scare tactics, and only one scene of laughable gore. As a comedy, the jokes consistently fail to land, often coming off as trying too hard or simply alienating rather than funny.

Perhaps the greatest error of Chop, however, is its resistance to committing itself too fully to one thing. It seems that Haaga and Keenan, both from Troma backgrounds, have failed to learn the lesson taught by Troma films: when it comes to blood and laughs, more is better. If Chop really committed to the absurdity of its concept -– for instance, if the premise of the movie was simply a man who woke up to find himself missing an appendage every time he fell asleep –- there might be more life in this. If the filmmakers embraced the brutality of its subject, and actually showed some of his limbs getting chopped off, maybe the giddy gore would at least elicit an emotion from the audience.

Instead, Chop doesn’t commit to anything, making it hard for the viewer to commit to even watching the film through to its dissatisfying ending. Movie watchers would do well to skip this in favor of the Troma catalogue for a bloody good time instead of a bloody mess.

The greatest critics of the horror genre will make definitive statements about its reliance on formulas and tropes, cliches and repetition, and cheap tricks to garner gasps and shrieks from the audience. While these observations may be true for most of the Blockbuster hits that will spike adrenaline in theaters, this trend has also given birth to a delightful breed of satirical horror masters. Let it be said that Ti West is royalty among them, and his new film, The Innkeepers, does not disappoint. 

Set in a retiring hotel, The Innkeepers is a neat horror package. Skeleton crew of the hotel staff, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are self-fashioned ghost hunters, intent on capturing evidence of a haunting in the Yankee Pedlar Inn’s final days. Naturally, rumors of an apparition related to a death on the property forms a classic origin story for the haunting, and the vast open spaces of the near-empty hotel provide a perfect setting for a suspenseful ghost hunt.

Writer/Director West is not an artist to conjure up tales of unique creativity or edgy insight; instead, he works with the existing tropes, cliches, and repetitions to create something acutely smart and cheeky. Gripping the classic haunting film by its edges, he crinkles it up, adds a few lines, and smooths it out again. The result is charming, and impossibly fresh.

This is in no small part due to Claire. Paxton is a child-faced pixie with a petulant attitude. She stomps around the hotel, growling at Luke, flinging her tiny body from one activity to the next like a possessed rag doll. Her comic timing is impeccable, and armed with West’s writing, she is charmingly off type for a horror heroin. Playing against the grumpily aloof Luke, she makes one of the most engaging horror characters ever to grace the screen.

Most of the film consists of following Claire around the hotel as she attempts to contact the ghost and subsequently gets severely “freaked out.” These sequences are full of typical horror scare tricks, with birds flying in faces and clomps and clunks turning out to be harmless tinkering. Yet, the film is not undone by the feeling of phoniness to which these tricks often doom a horror project; instead, they seem like deliberate, playful winks at the audience. Got you, West is saying. And you know he’ll get you next time too.

The Innkeepers is a lot more than a few bumps in the night, however. West’s inclusion of home recording techniques and amateur ghost capturing technology is an obvious satire of the trends in horror toward handicam and low-fi. With each one of these sniggers at modern horror, West supplies a throwback scene, reminiscent of campfire scary stories and 80s haunting films that relied on story and tone to draw chills rather than film student gimmicks. Perhaps the greatest appeal of West’s work is that it is visceral, enjoyable, entertaining, and doesn’t give you the impression of degrading your intelligence. He knows exactly what is going on, and so do you.

Unfortunately, this self awareness tends to remind the watcher that this is just a film, and so it fails to lead to anything truly frightening. The spirit as represented doesn’t terrify (in some scenes, it’s unclear as to whether she’s even malevolent), and nothing feels high stakes. But perhaps this film, unlike The House of the Devil and its chilling suspense, or Cabin Fever 2 and its revolting gore, is not meant to garner such a physical reaction. Perhaps West aims for something more intellectual with this one. The mind is the most dangerous weapon.

Even tongue in cheek, his films continue to delight not just horror fans, but those that desire good story and characters on their screens. In the end, The Innkeepers is a classic and simple formula that yields a charmingly classic and simple result.

As a subcategory of the horror genre, the exorcism film does not have the best reputation. For every The Exorcist, there are a dozen Posessed’s and Beyond the Door’s. Yet, when done well, there is rarely something as profoundly disturbing as the image of someone in the grips of demonic possession. The Devil Inside combines traditional exorcism tropes with a quick, well written story to provide a deliciously horrifying package; blood, Bible and all.

Writer/Director William Brent Bell appears to have an acute understanding of exorcism film’s successful attributes and its traditional flaws. Recycled trademarks like unnaturally contorted bodies, speaking in tongues, and sexual threats are all present in The Devil Inside, but they do not feel old or tired. The film also avoids any preachy religious characters, and overly elaborate makeup. Bell brings freshness to the subject by approaching it from a different angle; he does not follow the linear progression of a possession, but rather approaches the subject of possession from a distance and narrows upon several victims through a nonlinear narrative. As a result, the film does not carry the standard exorcism film formula, where the viewer knows exactly when to rest in safe boredom, and when to tense in preparation for the climax.

More important than his approach, however, is Bell’s portrayal of the actual exorcisms. Too frequently in films of demonic possession, there is thematic discussion without satisfying horror scenes to back it up. The Devil Inside does not shy away from its subject; each exorcism and possession is examined in full, grotesque detail. The effects are seamless, careful, and tastefully explicit. One victim breaks her own bones and contorts wildly, as exorcists Ben (Simon Quarterman) and David (Evan Helmuth) attempt to drive out the demon. The scene is disturbingly authentic and the details are obsessively precise. For the first time on screen, exorcism feels real.

Crowley plays the possessed Maria
As with so many horror films these days, the storyline appears to take the backseat. In faux-documentary style, the film follows Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade) who travels to Italy to visit her hospitalized mother, Maria (Suzan Crowley) to investigate the truth of an incident from her childhood: Maria viciously murdered three people while they performed an exorcism–on her.

The lackluster story creates more of a foundation upon which to build a study of exorcism than a structure for the film. Emotionally, the viewers become much more entranced with the activities of the cynical priest Ben, and his reluctant partner, David. Their conversations over the morality of performing illegal exorcisms and unravelling the truth behind Maria’s questionable possession are well written and intellectually stimulating, giving the film a feeling of depth that the main storyline doesn’t supply.

With the exception of a particularly cliche “horror movie” ending, The Devil Inside is a horror film that will intrigue even the most discerning horror fans, and terrify those less acquainted with the genre’s staples. This one definitely deems a rewatch–but this time, we’ll keep the lights on and the Bible close.

If there is a single academic that can be judged to have the most extensively permeated theories, it must be Sigmund Freud. Perched in an ivory seat of eminence in Vienna in the early 1900’s, his theories on sexuality and its effect on standard human behavior were famed as far as America, and his fervent followers counted among them doctors, academics and patients.

While Freud’s modern day reputation relies upon the diffusion of these theories in academia, the personalities of Freud and his colleagues has also become a great subject to discussion and interest. Freud is recognized to have been, among other things, a cocaine addict, an egotist, and stubbornly fixated on cores of his theories to which he would accept no compromise. He is known to have lost many of the great friends he forged through his work.

It is with one of these friendships that David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method occupies itself. On the eve of World War I, a young Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) treats a hysterical patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) with the “talking cure” developed by Freud (Viggo Mortensen). As Jung’s theories advance, he struggles with Freud’s preoccupation with sexuality, with Spielrein’s representation of it, and his own resistance to indulgence.

The film is a tangled mess of conversation and minimal plot, where story advances with subtle slights and shifts of ideas rather than large events or broken dishes. The slow pace is paired with Cronenberg’s perfect intensity to create a precarious, exciting balance. Handsomely mirroring its subject, the blurred line between instinctual indulgence and societal restriction, the filmmaker has created a monster wearing a mask of human courtesy. From the beautiful trimmings of Jung’s well-fashioned house, to the brittle repartee between Freud and Jung in the book-lined studies of Vienna, we can feel something boiling in the background.

For perpetration of such a feeling, Cronenberg could not have cast two better actors as his male leads. In his third beneficial pairing with the director, Mortensen is incredible as Freud. Partially obscured by the theorist’s trademark beard, constantly puffing on a cigar, Mortensen plays his part with an understated intelligence and obstinant self-satisfaction. He simultaneously evokes genius and ignorance.

Playing off of Mortensen, Fassbender further establishes himself as one of the strongest actors on screen. His Jung is quiet and calm in a deep way. When he rationalizes his marginal choices, we can almost see the decision occurring in his body, as if there were gears shifting into place. Capable of a great magnetism and physicality that might be too large for the character, Fassbender now indicates his ability to step back into himself, to allow his eyes and his forehead to act, to stammer and to weep without ever once overstepping himself. His self-control is a wonder, and perfectly tailored to the cautious Jung.

Knightley is certainly the weakest link among the performers in the film, but for all her visible straining it must be said that she far surpasses anything in her history. Particularly remarkable is her evocation of Sabina in hysteria, writhing and shuddering, forcing out an underbite that seems almost physically impossible.

What the film lacks in conventional plot, it makes up for in its writing. Based off Jon Kerr’s book A Most Dangerous Method with a script penned by Christopher Hampton, the dialogue doesn’t peddle to ignorants. The fact that the film does not dumb itself down is one of its greatest strengths; it is sweetly inflated, high on its own extraordinary intelligence. When Jung and Freud exchange theories, the viewer does not feel subject to an explanation, but rather witness to an intellectual discussion.

The result of this is that at times, it can be slightly too academic. It is imaginable that less interested viewers will find the film to drag at parts, when discussions heap on other discussions, and the talk of sexuality becomes greater than the actual sexuality in the film. However, for those with an interest in psychology, and terrifically intelligent movies, A Dangerous Method is not one to miss.

Rarely is a screenwriting debut so full of unique voice and character as Diablo Cody’s Juno, which opened to great critical praise and cult honorifics in 2007. Now, Cody’s pen brings us a darker, ironically more mature study of growing up in Young Adult.

If the title isn’t warning enough, this is not a piece exalting subtlety. Young Adult follows Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), an explicitly childish and unfulfilled woman, visually described in a quiet, sluggish opening that frames Mavis on the gray backdrops of Minneapolis as she attempts the opening chapters of a young adult series she ghostwrites. Theron tinkers around the high rise apartment with a fragile grace, her eyeliner smeared, hair mussed, skin perfect. For a few moments, it feels like a clumsy scene stolen from Todd Haynes’ Safe, the obvious pathetic fallacy reflecting Mavis’s mute hollowness.

Then, Mavis discovers that her high school flame, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), has had a baby. The film shifts gear and switches tone entirely as Mavis swivels her uncanny focus onto returning to her hometown of Mercury, Ohio, and reclaiming her soul mate, no matter the consequences.

It is in the process of this pursuit that the film finds its rhythm, largely due to the subtle genius of Patton Oswalt, who plays a crippled, “fat nerd” that knew Mavis in high school, and becomes an unlikely foil to her marginally sociopathic intent. Oswalt, famous for comedic turns on screen and a sharp standup routine, plays his part with a sweetly self-deprecating, puppyish affect. Acting against Theron’s Mavis, all hard angles under layers of mascara, Oswalt demonstrates a charmingly human, rancorous amusement. At times, the repertoire between the actors appears almost competitive; every quip drips with a threat of stealing the scene.

It is clear from these exchanges that the film’s most remarkable aspect rests in the performances. Where the humor is lackluster and the narrative arc lacks the conviction to hammer home any of its petty conclusions, Theron is a marvel. Having played serial killers and bubble gum popping teenagers, the actress is by now a seasoned champion on screen. Still, it is rare that we see her flexing so many acting muscles in one film. She is in one scene a coy, flirtatious princess, extraordinarily gorgeous and alluring. In another scene, she is pallid, picking at her hair, anxious, afraid. The issue, then, becomes that Theron is too big for the character. She brings a level of depth and profound insight into a role that is written like a character in a young adult novel.

Wilson shines as one-time dreamboat Buddy Slade.
This effect is visible with the other main players’ roles as well. Patrick Wilson, arguably one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood, is incredible as the one-time football star, Buddy. Cody’s script indicates a general disinterest with the Buddy character. Still, Wilson manages to use his face and inflection to an incredible degree, developing an interesting character out of what might have appeared the grownup version of a dumb jock if played solely from the script.

These performances may be partially due to the direction of Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Juno), who is famous for eliciting great performances. But if we are crediting him for the performances, we must also acknowledge his part in the failures of the film. While individual attributes of the film may be delightful, they come together in a disappointing melting pot of discordant tone and jumpy mood. Where Juno successfully accomplished a humorous film with hints at darker themes, Young Adult gets bogged down in the melancholy. Too frequently, it slips back to the grey feeling of the opening. Add to this the manifold references to Mavis as a “crazy person,” her clear mental dissonance, and the disturbing scenes of her picking hair out of a spot on the back of her head, and the film simply is not funny. It’s sad. And scenes that try to jostle the viewer into laughter feel phony and uncomfortable.

In the end, Young Adult is an interesting treatment of the madness perpetrated by unfulfilled hopes and dreams, and the danger of selfish desire. Yet, Cody’s attempt at a more mature subject falls short; not surprisingly, the best lines of dialogue are the theatrical snippets that Mavis witnesses when she overhears teenage girls speaking. Perhaps Cody, like Mavis, isn’t quite ready to grow up. But maybe that isn’t the worst thing, after all. 

Copyright 2010 Jessica Has a Movie Blog