No one is more surprised than I am that I liked Dark Skies, only because when the trailers are inscrutable and studios keep it away from critics, well, we can connect the dots. This isn't the case. Dark Skies is well written and executed, with effective sound design, good performances from the cast, and eerie creatures that are left mostly to our imagination. Frankly, it's baffling.
Keri Russell (The Americans) and Josh Hamilton (The House of Yes, Kicking and Screaming) play the believable, likable Barretts, a couple that's hit a rough patch in their marriage. Daniel lost his job, Lacy's struggling as a real estate agent, and the marriage bed is a little chilly. Their two kids Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and Sammy (Kadan Rockett) are smart, sweet kids who are the first witnesses to the weirdness happening at their house. Jesse and Sammy have a cute bedtime ritual where Jesse reads Sammy scary stories before they fall asleep using walkie-talkies. Their latest scary story is about the Sandman, whom Sammy blames for the pranks that the Barretts begin finding in the morning. As these occurrences escalate, it's clear there's no way that Sammy could be the perp.
Like most good supernatural thrillers, the weird things happening can be ascribed to stress or nightmares or overactive imaginations. The Barretts become increasingly isolated from their friends and neighbors, which only adds to their stress. The way the Barretts experience this internal/external strife can be read as an interesting bit of social commentary; the family unit that stays together and remains strong is the only thing that can defeat whatever threatens them. Daniel is upset and ashamed he can't take care of his family, either financially or from whatever is stalking them. Jesse is mad at his parents for fighting and acting weird and making being a teen even more awkward than usual. Lacy thinks something out of this world is terrorizing them — or maybe it's her husband. This theory about the strength of the family unit is made even clearer later in the film when they meet with a sort of specialist in extraterrestrial phenomena.
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This specialist, Edwin Pollard, is played by J.K. Simmons, who brings a gentle intelligence and mellow resignation that works really well. He could be a wild-eyed kook who wears X-Files shirts and "wants to believe," but he's not. He's just a bachelor with a bunch of cats who has given up fighting. (He has cats because dogs can sense, yes, aliens, and the barking used to keep Edwin up at night.) His performance is a good example of what makes Dark Skies a surprisingly solid sci-fi film.
The premise is straightforward and simple, even though we're trained to expect all sorts of twists. It's not that the Barretts are dumb or exasperating, it's that they don't want to believe it's possible for aliens to exist or be interested in them. They don't want to be those people, the kind of people like Edwin who have totally isolated themselves from society because of what they've seen and experienced, even though they are quickly becoming exactly that. The weakest character is Jesse's putzy friend Ratner, the kind of obnoxious teen boy who talks about "bitches" and encourages his shy friend to be a little bit naughtier, but he has his place in the story as well. If the performances had been a little more exaggerated or the music a touch more dramatic, Dark Skies could have easily tipped into silly territory, but it very carefully walks that line. It takes these possibilities seriously and earnestly, which convinces the audience to do the same. There's a groundedness to the whole enterprise that's satisfying.
There are one or two scenes that are simply jump scares or perhaps a little silly, but they're not so egregious that they take you out of the movie. (And, I'll be honest, jump scares work on me.) In the end, Dark Skies is a wholly enjoyable film that genre fans will enjoy.
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It's not that Movie 43 is shocking or "edgy " or whatever any of the writers or directors would like to convince you. If you want to actually puke or cry or be shocked you can go to Rotten.com like the rest of us Internet miscreants. The Cinema of Transgression films by Nick Zedd and Richard Kern have more artistic value than Movie 43 and are generally more interesting. Which is saying a lot because Zedd's films can get pretty boring. You can only see Annie Sprinkle make out with a man who's listed as Ray the Burn Victim for so long... although I feel terrible for writing because everyone needs love. Sorry Ray.
Movie 43 has 12 directors and 17 writers credited with this anthology of shorts modeled according to producers Peter Farrelly and Charlie Wessler in the spirit of Kentucky Fried Movie. Surprisingly none of those writers or directors go by the name Alan Smithee. It's not even totally clear which were written and directed by whom; the production notes are "hilarious first hand [sic] accounts from those who were a part of and were witnesses to the creation of MOVIE 43."
Kate Winslet and Halle Berry and Richard Gere were tricked into participating which is supposed to make their "outrageous" shorts all the more titillating. One of the larger problems of Movie 43 is that it relies on this handful of mega-stars and on our reactions to them and their off-screen personas all in lieu of genuine comedy onscreen. Would it be funny if some schmuck on YouTube played a Steve Jobs-like character who didn't understand why his company's iBabe music player — which looks like a naked woman but has a coolant system with a fan between its legs — was mangling users? No it wouldn't. And it's definitely not any funnier because it's Richard Gere playing him.
What's most offensive about Movie 43 isn't the scatological humor but how shoddily the whole thing was put together. (To be honest I did nearly walk out during the Anna Faris/Chris Pratt short about her desire to be pooped on. I also nearly barfed during Salo. Because poop.) In quite a few of the shorts half of the actors' heads are cut out of frame. Their heads are literally cut off of the screen in a movie that was professionally filmed by accredited cinematographers. Now it could have been the theater projecting the film that was having the problem but that's not really my concern. My concern was mainly that a handful of paying customers (including myself) were sitting through a studio movie where the top of actors' heads aren't in frame.
The self-referential wraparound for the movie is embarrassing for everyone involved including the viewer. Dennis Quaid plays a disheveled crazy writer who holds a studio exec (Greg Kinnear) hostage until the exec agrees to buy his movie pitch. His pitch is the series of shorts which the exec obviously thinks is a terrible idea... because it is. This is like adding insult to injury because the creators know what they've made is crap. Even the studio exec that they themselves wrote thinks the premise of Movie 43 is crap and has to be held at gunpoint to bring the idea to his boss. This idea that you will have wasted 90 minutes of your life on — minutes you could have spent watching YouTube videos of people squeezing their own cysts or having botflies removed from their bodies or yes making out with burn victims.
Complain all you like about stodgy critics who have no sense of humor and don't get "the kids" today and all that but it seems that Peter Farrelly and the group of people who forced this towards theaters (with little to no help from most of the stars or writers or directors) are the ones who are completely out of touch. With anything. Including humor.'s>
The allure of a jump scare that perfectly-timed loud noise that sends a horror movie audience jumping is hard to ignore. They're easy but effective — if you want to shake people up nothing works as well as a well placed violin screech or slamming door sound effect. Thankfully the new evil ghost movie Sinister mostly avoids the easy way out by developing its lead character a novelist with a drinking problem and exploring an inventive twist on "found footage" (the guy actually finds footage). It all works quite well… that is until it starts relying on jump scares.
True crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) hasn't had a hit book in years but he hopes to change his life around by investigating a set of murders committed in the backyard of a suburban home. To immerse himself in the history Ellison moves his entire family into the house where the committed murders took place (and without telling them their new home's little secret). He immediately falls down the rabbit hole discovering a series of Super 8 movies depicting the first killings and a string of other bizarre murders all captured on gritty film. Ellison loses himself to the movies only flinching when his wife Tracey (Juliet Rylance) begs him to come to bed or his son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) wakes up in a fit of terror from an anxiety ailment. But as he watches and rewatches the snuff films Ellison begins to see a connection between them: a shadowy figure who it turns out might be a supernatural entity.
Great horror rides on its lead and Hawke serves Sinister well. He's ambitious and overly confident of his abilities as he digs deeper and deeper into the history of the Super 8 movies. He makes some poor choices — why writers in movies are continually keeping secrets from their families and drinking way more whiskey than their finances would allow is one of Hollywood's great mysteries — but Hawke is adept at making the act of watching someone watch something interesting. His obsession with the mystery his slowly disintegrating mind is reminiscent of Jack Torrence in The Shining.
But before Sinister gets that involved with its central character it strays into run-of-the-mill haunted house territory. Vincent D'Onofrio pops up for a quick expositional Skype chat to inform Ellison that the dark being in his home movies might be a Pagan deity that eats the souls of children. That would explain all those pesky kid ghosts that keep whispering in the ear of Ellison's Ashley (Clare Foley) and making creepy bumps in the night.
Sinister's most terrifying material comes from the grainy "found footage." When director Scott Derrickson moves back and forth between Ellison and the films the writer illuminated only by the flickering projector it's chilling. But the movie progresses away from that into its own conventional horror movie. Weighed down by explanation and meandering action Sinister loses track of its character angle in favor of the almighty jump scare. It's exhausting — but then again as the nickname suggests they never fail to make one jump.
The magical R-rating is both a gift and a curse to Adam Sandler's signature brand of lowbrow humor. In That's My Boy the comedian returns to the dim-witted roots that made him a star in early outings like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore (complete with high-pitched mushmouth accent) but with a ramped up "ew" factor. Unrestrained Sandler piles on as many expletives and gross-out scenarios as a two-hour movie can hold — and it works out quite well. With costar Samberg nailing the disgusted straight man role Sandler's penchant for acting like a fool is enhanced by the sick stylings of director Sean Anders (Sex Drive) and only occasionally teetering into truly offensive territory. Laughs aren't guaranteed but the movie provokes (which is a big step up from Jack and Jill).
Back in the '80s Donny had a secret relationship with his teacher Ms. McGarricle that resulted in a son Han Solo (he's a middle schooler what do you expect?). The torrid affair put McGarricle in jail Donny into celebrity tabloid spotlight and Han Solo in the hands of a tween father. Thirty years later everyone's screwed up: Donny (Adam Sandler) is a drunk on the brink of jail time for tax evasion McGarricle's still in jail and Han Solo (Andy Samberg) now "Todd " is a successful number-cruncher with severe social issues. On the weekend of Todd's wedding Donny reenters his life hoping to bring revive their relationship and reunite him with his mother — that is on camera so Donny can make $50 000 from a gossip TV show and stay out of the slammer. Posing as Todd's long-lost best friend Donny stirs up trouble becoming buddies with Todd's friends and family and acting like a imbecile.
The wedding setup is overdone but always prime for comedy: plenty for a numbskull to screw up logical progression (there's a wedding at the end!) and a bachelor party scene to squeeze in the most disgusting bits and have them make sense. That's My Boy makes the most of its conventions — including what we all know and expect from a Sandler comedy — by continually one-upping itself. After a night of heavy drinking at the local strip club/omelette bar that results in do-it-yourself ear piercing and robbing a convenience store with Vanilla Ice Todd returns home to expel the night's worth of drinking all over his fiancee's wedding dress. Then he makes love to the dress. Then his fiancee (Leighton Meester) wakes up to find the dress. Then it goes even further than one would care to imagine. Grossed out yet? Amazingly lower-than-low brow material is handled with clever timing and great delivery. It's just that the foundation is bodily fluids.
That's My Boy falters when it throws in gags that serve zero purpose to the story. Strange racist humor a mentally retarded bar patron played by Nick Swardson (a Sandler mainstay) random allusions to Todd Bridges' drug habits — barrel-scraping one-offs that have nothing to do with the movie. At two hours the movie needs slimming and the fat is apparent. Thankfully the main ensemble goes to great lengths to make the hard R comedy click with Sandler and Samberg playing well off each other (although Samberg doesn't have the making of a leading man after this movie) and SNL alums like Will Forte Rachel Dratch and Ana Gasteyer driving by to bring the funny. Even Vanilla Ice's extended cameo fits the anything-goes tone playing a version of himself that befriended Donny in his celebrity days. Now he works at an ice skating rink.
After a few lame ducks That's My Boy is a return to form for Sandler. It wavers in quality but it has energy and color. A cash-in this is not and for any Sandler fan with a stomach for hardcore bathroom humor it's a must-see.
Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.
Salt the propulsive new thriller from Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger Patriot Games) has been dubbed “Bourne with boobs ” but that label isn’t entirely accurate. In the role of Evelyn Salt a CIA staffer hunted by her own agency after a Russian defector fingers her in a plot to murder Russia’s president Angelina Jolie keeps her two most potent weapons holstered hidden under pantsuits and trenchcoats and the various other components of a super-spy wardrobe that proudly emphasizes function over flash.
But flash is one thing Salt never lacks for. Its breathless cat-and-mouse game hits full-throttle almost from the outset when a former KGB officer named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) stumbles into a CIA interrogation room and begins spilling details of a vast conspiracy. Back in the ‘70s hardline elements of the Soviet regime launched an ambitious new front in the Cold War flooding the western world with orphans trained to infiltrate the security complexes of their adopted homelands and wait patiently — decades if necessary — for the order to initiate a series of assassinations intended to trigger a devastating nuclear clash between the superpowers from which the treacherous Reds would emerge triumphant.
The Soviet Union may have long ago collapsed (or did it? Hmmm...) but its army of brainwashed killer orphan spies remains in place and if this crazy Orlov fellow is to be believed they stand poised to reignite the Cold War. It’s a preposterous — even idiotic — scheme but no more so than any of our government’s various harebrained proposals to kill Castro back in the ‘60s. As such the CIA treats it with grave seriousness even the part that that pegs Salt who just happens to be a Russian-born orphan herself as a key player in the conspiracy.
Salt bristles at the accusation but suspecting a set-up she opts to flee rather than face interrogation from her bosses Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). A former field agent she’s been confined to a desk job since a clandestine operation in North Korea went south leaving her with a nasty shiner and a rather unremarkable German boyfriend (now her unremarkable German husband). She’s clearly kept up her training during while cubicle-bound however and in a blaze of resourceful thinking and devastating Parkour Fu she fends off a dozen or so agents of questionable competence and takes to the streets where she sets about to clear her name and unravel the Commie orphan conspiracy before the authorities can catch up with her. That is if she isn’t a part of the conspiracy.
The premise which aims to resurrect Cold War tensions and graft them onto a modern-day spy thriller is absurdly clever — and cleverly absurd. But Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay isn’t satisfied with the merely clever and absurd — it must be mind-blowing. Salt is one of those thrillers that ladles out its backstory slowly and in tiny portions every once in a while dropping a revelatory bombshell that effectively blows the lid off everything that happened beforehand. No one is who they seem and every action every gesture no matter how seemingly trivial is imbued with some kind of grand significance. The effect of piling on one insane twist after another has the effect of gradually diluting the narrative. When anything is possible nothing really matters.
But spy thrillers by definition trade in the preposterous and the principal function of the summer blockbuster is to entertain. In that regard Salt more than fulfills its charge. Noyce wisely keeps the story moving at pace that allows little time for asking uncomfortable questions or poking holes in the film’s frail plot. And he has an able partner in the infinitely versatile Jolie who having already exhibited formidable action-hero chops in Wanted and the Tomb Raider films proves remarkably adept at the spy game as well.
It’s well-known that Jolie wasn’t the first choice to star in Salt joining the project only after Tom Cruise dropped out citing the story’s growing similarities to the Mission: Impossible films. But she’s more than just a capable replacement; she’s a welcome upgrade over Cruise not least because she’s over a decade younger (and a few inches taller) than her predecessor. Should Brad Bird require a pinch-hitter for Ethan Hunt he knows where to look.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Claire is an attractive CIA operative and Ray is an M16 agent who simultaneously leave their Governmental spy activities in the dust to try and profit from a battle between two rival multi-national corporations both trying to launch a new product that will transform the world and make billions. Their goal is to secure the top-secret formula and get a patent before they are outsmarted. While their respective egomaniacal CEOs engage in an unending battle of wills and one-upmanship Claire and Ray start out conning and playing one another in a clever game of industrial espionage that is even more complicated due to their own long-term romantic relationship.
WHO’S IN IT?
Reuniting Closer co-stars Julia Roberts (as Claire) and Clive Owen (as Ray) turns out to be an inspired idea. They turn out to be the perfect pair oozing movie-star charm and electricity in this elaborate con-game that might have been the kind of thing Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant might have made in the '60s (in fact they did in Charade). Roberts with that infamous hairstyle back the way we like it and Owen looking great in sunglasses prove they have what it takes to navigate us through this ultra-complex plot in which no one is sure who they can trust at any given moment. They play it all in high style and the wit just flows as the story skirts back and forth during the period of five years. The supporting cast is well-chosen with juicy roles for Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti (out of their John Adams duds) as the two CEOs going for each other’s throats. Giamatti who sometimes has a tendency to overdo it is especially slimy here and great fun to watch.
Big-star studio movies today rarely take risks and often talk down to the audience but in Duplicity writer/director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) has crafted a complicated con-comedy that requires complete attention at all times just to keep up with the dense plot’s twists and turns. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a New York Times crossword puzzle and Gilroy and his top-drawer production team deliver a glossy beautiful-looking film that’s easy on the eyes hitting locations from Dubai to Rome to New York City.
Like any good puzzle it sometimes can be frustrating putting it all together and Gilroy’s habit of taking us back in time and then inching forward gets a little confusing even with the on-screen chyron pointing out where we are at any given moment. Stick with it though and you will be well-rewarded.
A scene near the end where the formula must be found scanned and faxed in a matter of minutes is sweat-inducing edge-of-your-seat moviemaking and it provides the ultimate opportunity for Roberts and Owen to take the “con” to the next level. Another where Roberts uses a thong to try and trick Owen into admitting an affair he never had is also priceless and gets right to the heart of the game-playing.
GO OUT AND GET POPCORN WHEN ...
Never. Stock up during the coming attractions. If you miss a moment of this entertaining romp you might never figure it all out.