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There are a lot of ideas floating around in Cheap Thrills. They're interesting, they're dense, and they're fruitful endeavors for the world of psychological horror. But they are relegated to floating, never quite anchoring into any real conclusions or statements about their desperate, depraved subjects.
We meet Craig (Pat Healy), a happily married father of one, on a particularly bad day: he loses his job, is slapped with an eviction notice, and — to top it all off — bumps into a pesky old chum (Ethan Embry) from his younger days. A fellow who Craig, a loser in his own right, judges for never having gone anywhere. As the high school buddies catch up, they are roped into the increasingly violent and grotesque high jinks of a pair of thrill-seeking strangers (David Koechner, giving an impressively haunting performance, and a nearly wordless Sara Paxton) with the promise of bright financial futures dangled in front of them. The men, each of thinning pride, gradually give way to monetary temptation as they play along in these treacherous mind games, the biggest mystery being if a limit to their desperation exists.
Drafthouse Films via Everett Collection
Although it's an intriguing venture, the sociological study stops at its thesis question. In truth, the movie's philosophical makeup can be summed up with the Klondike Bar slogan. Still, there is meat to be found: the bubbling lava underneath the crust of Craig and Vince's (Embry) long dormant friendship comes with a few humanistic ditties about breaking free from your past, and the pangs inherent in facing off with someone who knows the you that you've been trying to escape. But these ideas, too, aren't milked to their full potential. The only element of the film that does hit its promised summit: the grossness.
Cheap Thrills does deliver, and then some, on the ick factor. It's not an abundance of gore or violence that does it, but the visceral, intimate nature with which the gore is handled. Everything is up close and personal, all pains really felt. If this is your bag, then Cheap Thrills will come through here. But psychologically, it does little more than present would-be interesting ideas. Fun in the set-up, occasionally thrilling in the delivery, but never particularly fulfilling in the conclusion.
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Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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There is something particularly unnerving about demon possession. It's the idea of something you can't see or control creeping into your body and taking up residence eventually obliterating all you once were and turning you into nothing more than a sack of meat to be manipulated. Then there's also the shrouded ritual around exorcisms: the Latin chants the flesh-sizzling crucifixes and the burning Holy Water. As it turns out exorcism isn't just the domain of Catholics.
The myths and legends of the Jews aren't nearly as well known but their creepy dybbuk goes toe-to-toe with anything other world religions come up with. There are various interpretations of what a dybbuk is or where it comes from — is it a ghost a demon a soul of a sinner? — but in any case it's looking for a body to hang out in for a while. Especially according to the solemn Hasidic Jews in The Possession an innocent young person and even better a young girl.
The central idea in The Possession is that a fancy-looking wooden box bought at a garage sale was specifically created to house a dybbuk that was tormenting its previous owner. Unfortunately it caught the eye of young Emily (Natasha Calis) a sensitive artistic girl who persuades her freshly divorced dad Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan of Watchmen and Grey's Anatomy) to buy it for her. Never mind the odd carvings on it — that would be Hebrew — or how it's created without seams so it would be difficult to open or why it's an object of fascination for a young girl; Clyde is trying really hard to please his disaffected daughters and do the typical freshly divorced parent dance of trying to please them no matter the cost.
Soon enough the creepy voices calling to Emily from the box convince her to open it up; inside are even creepier personal objects that are just harbingers of what's to come for her her older sister Hannah (Madison Davenport) her mom Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) and even Stephanie's annoying new boyfriend Brett (Grant Show). Clyde and Stephanie squabble over things like pizza for dinner and try to convince each other and themselves that Emily's increasingly odd behavior is that of a troubled adolescent. It's not of course and eventually Clyde enlists the help of the son of a Hasidic rabbi a young man named Tzadok played by the former Hasidic reggae musician Matisyahu to help them perform an exorcism on Emily.
The Possession is not going to join the ranks of The Exorcist in the horror pantheon but it does do a remarkable job of making its characters intelligent and even occasionally droll and it offers up plenty of chills despite a PG-13 rating. Perhaps it's because of that rating that The Possession is so effective; the filmmakers are forced to make the benign scary. Giant moths and flying Torahs take the place of little Reagan violently masturbating with a crucifix in The Exorcist. Gagging and binging on food is also an indicator of Emily's possession — an interesting twist given the anxieties of becoming a woman a girl Emily's age would face. There is something inside her controlling her and she knows it and she is fighting it. The most impressive part of Calis's performance is how she communicates Emily's torment with a few simple tears rolling down her face as the dybbuk's control grows. The camerawork adds to the anxiety; one particularly scary scene uses ordinary glass kitchenware to great effect.
The Possession is a short 92 minutes and it does dawdle in places. It seems as though some of the scenes were juggled around to make the PG-13 cut; the moth infestation scene would have made more sense later in the movie. Some of the problems are solved too quickly or simply and yet it also takes a while for Clyde's character to get with it. Stephanie is a fairly bland character; she makes jewelry and yells at Clyde for not being present in their marriage a lot and then there's a thing with a restraining order that's pretty silly. Emily is occasionally dressed up like your typical horror movie spooky girl with shadowed eyes an over-powdered face and dark clothes; it's much more disturbing when she just looks like an ordinary though ill young girl. The scenes in the heavily Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn look oddly fake and while it's hard to think of who else could have played Tzadok an observant Hasidic Jew who is also an outsider willing to take risks the others will not Matisyahu is not a very good actor. Still the filmmakers should be commended for authenticity insofar as Matisyahu has studied and lived as a Hasidic Jew.
It would be cool if Lionsgate and Ghost House Pictures were to release the R-rated version of the movie on DVD. What the filmmakers have done within the confines of a PG-13 rating is creepy enough to make me curious to see the more adult version. The Possession is no horror superstar and its name is all too forgettable in a summer full of long-gestating horror movies quickly pushed out the door. It's entertaining enough and could even find a broader audience on DVD. Jeffrey Dean Morgan can read the Old Testament to me any time.
When I first heard about the premise of Chernobyl Diaries I was like Channing Tatum in 21 Jump Street: "F*ck science!" Honestly extreme tourism? People pay for a trip to Pripyat — an abandoned city near the site of one of the worst nuclear disaster in history — for some vacation photos? Well it is possible and people actually do it despite the lingering radiation and other serious dangers but hopefully none of them are as painfully dumb as the characters in Diaries.
Jesse McCartney is Chris the sensible little brother who really would have preferred to stick with the plan: a day trip to Moscow where he'd pop the question to his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Dudley). His older brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) is a bit of a bad boy horndog with a taste for adventure who insistst they and their recently dumped friend Amanda (Devin Kelly) go on an exciting trip to Pripyat instead. Amanda is also a photographer of sorts because she has a fancy camera and is taking photos of everything. Other than that we know almost nothing about any of the characters (although Paul does note that "the chicks are f*cking amazing"). They are later joined by Michael (Nathan Phillips) and Zoe (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) who prove to be equally forgettable.
Paul knows how to party so he leads Chris Natalie and Amanda to a sketchy office to set up their trip to Pripyat. The tour guide is named what else Yuri (Dimitri Diatchenko) and he even has a dingy sign on the wall that reads "Yuri's Extreme Travel" and lots of photos of him in military garb. He's built like a brick house — but he's no match for the ridiculousness that awaits them.
The build-up to what they do find is interminable especially given what non-horrors await. At one point I was hoping it would turn out to be something similar to The Happening but no such luck. Just a bunch of bald zombie-types lurking in the mist and gnawing on human flesh! Although there's something to be said for leaving scary stuff lurking in the shadows it's also a good idea to establish enough tension beforehand so that we actually care about what is supposed to be scaring us.
According to writer/producer Oren Peli a good deal of the dialogue was improvised which is a bit of a relief as the actors drop gems like "What exactly happened in Chernobyl?" and "Nature has reclaimed its rightful home " as well as tidbits like "Stop being a p*ssy" and "Maybe there's a gun in here!" This is director Bradley Parker's first feature and although he does occasionally have trouble keeping the camera steady he doesn't rely on shaky-cam "found footage " for the most part.
Naturally some people are offended that filmmakers would use a human tragedy as the backdrop of a horror movie but plenty of movies use tragic events for fodder. They should be more offended that it's just so boring.
John Travolta will be forced to relive the painful memories of his son's death for a second time -- the judge overseeing his extortion case has ordered a retrial.
Former Bahamas senator Pleasant Bridgewater and paramedic Tarino Lightbourne were facing charges of conspiracy to extort $25 million from the actor and his wife Kelly Preston after their 16-year-old son Jett suffered a fatal seizure at the family's vacation home there in January.
The allegations centered around a Refusal of Treatment/Transportation form, signed by Travolta, which the pair allegedly threatened to release to the media.
But the trial collapsed on Wednesday -- Senior Justice Anita Allen declared a mistrial after a jury member reportedly leaked a verdict to politicians. Jurors were still deliberating when lawmaker Picewell Forbes allegedly announced to an audience at a Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) convention that Bridgewater was "a free woman."
Alex Storr, a PLP official, claimed Forbes had misspoken and apologized on behalf of the party, but Justice Allen decided to err on the side of caution by declaring a mistrial.
Now Travolta, who testified during the hearings, will have to take to the stand again as the case goes back to court.
Justice Allen ordered a retrial late on Wednesday night.
The star's attorney, Michael Ossi, insists his client will fully cooperate with future proceedings and will testify again if necessary.
He says, "We are committed to seeing this through, and we are committed to seeing justice served. And whatever the prosecution asks us to do is exactly what we will do."
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Top Story: Minnelli Visits Rehab Again
Liza Minnelli has checked herself in an eight-week "self-help" program, Reuters reports. "She is in the Caron center where she is obliged to go for eight weeks every year for a self-help program," publicist Warren Cowan told Reuters on Thursday. Cowan said Minnelli went into the center in rural Pennsylvania two weeks ago and was unsure when she would leave. The actress-singer has been battling addictions to alcohol and painkillers for a number of years and nearly died of a bout of viral encephalitis in 2000. Minnelli then married for a fourth time to producer David Gest in March last year, proclaiming her recovery from her addictions. The couple was in the process of throwing a lavish first anniversary party at New York's Times Square but called it off last week, due to the imminent war with Iraq.
Black Film Festival Put on Hold
Another entertainment casualty due to the war in Iraq was the postponement of the Hollywood Black Film Festival, scheduled to start March 25, which honors black filmmakers. "This is a critical moment for our country and our soldiers, and at this time the nation's focus should appropriately be on the escalating conflict in the Middle East," festival founder and director Tanya Kersey-Henley told The Associated Press.
Paramount Postpones Ropes
Due to the uncertainty of television airtime as the continuing war coverage interrupts programming, Paramount Pictures has decided to hold off releasing their feature film Against the Ropes, starring Meg Ryan, which was to open April 25, Reuters reports. "The issue is the advertising gets preempted, and you end up losing your message," the studio spokeswoman Nancy Kirkpatrick told Reuters. The film is based on the true story of a female boxing manager.
Taylor Gives Up the Spotlight
Elizabeth Taylor has announced after her appearance at the 75th Annual Academy Awards she will retire from acting--for good, Reuters reports. The 71-year-old actress said in an interview with TV show Access Hollywood "[The Oscars] will be my swan song on the stage. I've retired from acting; it doesn't really interest me that much anymore. It seems kind of superficial because now my life is AIDS, not acting."
Despite the fact bombs were falling on Baghdad Wednesday night, two major social events went on as planned in Los Angeles: the AIDS benefit at Ozzy Osbourne's mansion and a fashion/diamonds event at Keanu Reeves mother's house, Variety reports. One of the few guests who was invited to both events was Barbara Davis, who told Variety when asked to compare the two houses, "The Osbournes have pictures of their dead pets on the wall." Interesting.
Anthony Michael Hall Sued
The Canadian insurers of the television series The Dead Zone have sued star Anthony Michael Hall to recoup more than $612,000 for failure to disclose he suffers from manic depression, AP reports. The suit claims production of the series, shot in Vancouver, was halted from May to August 2001 when Hall was treated for "bipolar affective disorder depression with psychotic features" for which the production company submitted a claim and received money. AP reports Hall's lawyers will respond to the suit.
OK, Divorce Me, but I'm Keeping the Dog!
One of the only things Cris Judd got from his divorce to diva Jennifer Lopez is a chocolate Labrador retriever named Buster, a gift from Lopez, AP reports. The couple was married for nine months before they split last June. "I still love her," Judd told Us Weekly magazine for its March 31 issue. "And I will always have a special place in my heart for her. I will always be there for her if she ever needs me for anything." So will, we assume, the dog.
Matrix Short Plays With Dreamcatcher
If you see Dreamcatcher this weekend, you are in for an added treat. The Final Flight of the Osiris, a $5 million computer-animated Matrix-related short film, will be shown before the screening of the Warner Bros. horror film. This is the first of nine short stories created by Matrix writer-director brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski It takes place after The Matrix left off and sets up the story to the next installment The Matrix: Reloaded, opening May 15.
Two Covers for Next Harry Potter Book
The fifth installment for the next Harry Potter chapter Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix will get dual book covers--one for adults and one for children. According to AP, Bloomsbury Publishers unveiled the designs Thursday. The adult edition of book features a somber black-and-white picture of a phoenix, while the children's version of the boy wizard book is illustrated with a more vibrant red and orange bird rising from flames.
Liza Minnelli has an exciting new year waiting for her, as she prepares for a wedding and a television tribute in March.
Minnelli plans to wed producer David Gest in New York, whom she met in Spetember when she appeared on Gest's production of Michael Jackson: 30th Anniversary Special, Gest's publicist Warren Cowan told The Associated Press. Jackson will reportedly serve as one of Gest's best men. It will be Minnelli's fourth marriage and Gest's first. "I am the happiest I've ever been,'' Minnelli, 55, said in a statement. "Everything I've been through was worth it to find David.'' In addition, Minmelli will star on her own television tribute, which was planned before Minnelli and Gest decided to marry and will feature Jackson and Minnelli in a dance number.
Ben Stiller has been named the "sexiest funnyman," according to People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive 2001" poll. "It's quite an honor to be in that subdivision of the not really sexy man but sexy funny man. It's almost sexy,'' Stiller, told Reuters. The actor next stars in Wes Anderson's upcoming comedy-drama, The Royal Tenenbaums, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Gene Hackman and Bill Murray.
American-born pop singer Melanie Thornton, vocalist for the dance group La Bouche, died on Saturday night in a plane crash near Zurich."It is true that Miss Thornton was on the passenger list. She is not among the survivors,'' Zurich police spokesman Karl Steiner told Reuters. Nine people survived out of the 33 aboard the Crossair jet, and police said the remaining 24 were presumed dead. Among Thornton's biggest singles were "Sweet Dreams," "Falling In Love" and " Be My Lover." Thornton, 34, was on tour to publicize her solo album "Ready to Fly." Her latest single, " Wonderful Dream'' is the song for a new Coca-Cola commercial and was due in stores Monday.
Jazz promoter, producer and manager Norman Granz, who recorded most of the major names in jazz including Louie Armstrong, Count Basie and Billie Holiday, died Thursday in Geneva, Switzerland, of complications from cancer, Virginia Wicks, a Los Angeles-based publicist, told Reuters. He was 83. "To Norman it wasn't the color, it was the music that mattered," Wicks said. "We would have less than half of the jazz music that we have today if it hadn't been for Norman Granz." Granz is survived by his wife Greta.
Comedian Rodney Dangerfield had a heart attack on Thursday, his publicist, Warren Cowan, has confirmed with AP. His heart attack comes one day after his appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, who dedicated a show to the comedian and taped birthday greetings from actors and fellow comics. According to Dangerfield's publicist, he will undergo an x-ray of the blood vessels on Monday, when doctors will determine what treatment he requires.