The faux-documentary “cinema verite” camera style is increasingly prevalent in horror flicks these days and not just because the technique enables budget-conscious genre filmmakers to expend fewer resources on things like locations lighting and visual effects. When done convincingly as in the surprise blockbuster Paranormal Activity it adds an element of chilling authenticity that can dramatically enhance otherwise weak or derivative material. When done poorly as in the hokey alien-abduction thriller The Fourth Kind it comes off as little more than a cheap cinematic trick.
The faux-doc approach is for the most part put to effective use in Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism an unpretentious indie thriller that aims to blend the ethereal terror of William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic The Exorcist with the this-is-really-happening novelty of The Blair Witch Project. Its cast made up primarily of modestly talented vaguely recognizable TV actors is led by Patrick Fabian as the Reverend Cotton Marcus a handsome charismatic preacher bred from the cradle to spread the Word. But beneath his true believer facade lies a profound disillusionment with his faith the roots of which he frankly confesses to the documentary crew he’s assembled to chronicle his last cynical days in the pulpit. When he receives a letter from a distressed father pleading for him to perform an exorcism on his seemingly schizophrenic child Cotton embraces the opportunity to record the most bogus of religious rituals for posterity. (Cinephiles will note the story’s strong resemblance to that of Marjoe the Oscar-winning 1972 documentary about a traveling evangelist.)
To the creepy backwoods of rural Louisiana Cotton and his documentarians go encountering a handful of colorful yokels before arriving at the ramshackle house belonging to Louis Sweetzer a stone-faced alcoholic whose faith adheres to the more superstitious fire-and-brimstone variety of Christianity. Louis’ delightful brood includes Caleb (Caleb “Clammyface” Jones) a prickly unstable skeptic and Nell (Ashley Bell) a friendly gracious 16-year-old. All kids are little demonic at that age but bright-eyed Nell’s malevolent fits go beyond the typical hormone-fueled teen tantrums: Among her unusual hobbies are contorting her body into inhuman poses drawing ominous pictures of grisly murders and mutilating housepets and farm animals. Surely Satan and his minions must be involved.
It’s a clever ploy by the filmmakers to set The Last Exorcism in the deep south a place that needs no supernatural help to scare the bejesus out of people. Each of the three members Sweetzer family are creepily off-center as if their drinking water is spiked with equal amounts of Ambien and Dexedrine. Even the sweetly innocent face of the unpossessed Nell has an unsettling quality to it (it's oddly reminiscent of Vampire Weekend's controversial Contra album cover). All of which suggests that Cotton and his documentary crew are about to be taught a painful lesson in redneck theology.
Director Stamm’s principal aim is to unnerve rather than shock and while The Last Exorcism features its fair share of scares its tone is geared more toward keeping you on the edge of your seat than making you jump out of it. Disturbing details about the Sweetzer family are gradually revealed giving rise to insinuations of incest and other acts far more sordid than mere demonic possession the likelihood of which appears ever more possible as Cotton’s hocus-pocus treatments for Nell serve only to exacerbate her violent episodes. The film is betrayed at times by inaccuracies (Cotton employs a crucifix as one of his props apparently unaware that they’re the sole domain of Roman Catholic clergy) and its chaotic blink-and-you’ll-miss-it climax which pack about a half-dozen twists into a 90-second flurry of darting camerawork and what appears to be community-theater reworking of Rosemary’s Baby resolves matters in a devilishly disappointing fashion.
Based on H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's bestselling book of the same name Friday Night Lights tells the true story of the dusty West Texas town of Odessa where nothing much happens until September rolls around. That's when the town's 20 000 or so denizens pour into Ratliff Stadium the country's biggest high school football field every Friday night to watch the Permian Panthers Odessa's "boys in black " take to the field. All the town's hope and dreams are pinned on the padded shoulders of these young gridiron heroes--including insecure quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black); cocky self-assured running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke); headstrong self-destructive tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) who must contend with an overbearing abusive dad (Tim McGraw--yes that Tim McGraw the country singer); and the team's spiritual leader middle linebacker Ivory Christian (newcomer Lee Jackson). The Panthers begin their season with one thing on their minds--winning their fifth straight championship for the first time in the team's 30-year history--but for their coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) it also means instilling a love and joy of the game in the boys' hearts amidst tremendous pressures and expectations. Easier said than done.
There isn't a false note in any of the performances and no one falls back on clichéd versions of their characters as is so easy to do in rah-rah sports movies. Thornton does a particularly good job as Gaines keeping you guessing whether he's going to be a hardass insensitive to his players' emotional needs (like so many movie football coaches before him) or if he truly means to coach his boys in a fair and decent way. Gaines too has to deal with his own pressures especially from the townsfolk who are likely to string him up if the team loses the championship. As for Gaines' players Black (the oh-so-serious kid from Thornton's Sling Blade) is all grown up and buffed out and still very serious. It works for the young actor though as the beleaguered Winchell struggles with the love-hate relationship he has with his chosen sport. Other standouts include Luke (Antwone Fisher) as the star player Boobie whose cocksureness leads him to an injury; Hedlund as the volatile Billingsley trying desperately to please his father; and McGraw making his film debut as the father a former Permian Panther champion who sure hasn't given up his competitive spirit basically beating it into his son. First Faith Hill (McGraw's real-life wife) in The Stepford Wives and now McGraw--who knew country singers could act?
From All the Right Moves to Varsity Blues to Remember the Titans Friday Night Lights unfortunately doesn't completely distinguish itself from the pack of football movies before it--like those this is all about how the young players--be they underdogs second-string nobodies or stars--rising above the mounting pressure and playing the best they can bless their hearts. Still there's no question the sports genre--particularly football--always gets the juices pumping with FNL being no exception. It might have something to do with our sick fascination with watching bone-crunching hits and body-punishing tackles. It's dangerous out there for these guys; no other sport (besides maybe hockey) can elicit such wince-inducing emotion and actor/director Peter Berg (The Rundown) exploits that. Obviously influenced by Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday Berg effectively paints his own gritty documentary-style picture of the competitive sport without relying on too many trite gushy over-the-top moments. And to give it credit the film does not necessarily have a feel-good "let's win one for the Gipper" ending; it is based on a true story after all and as we know real life isn't all sunshine and roses especially in the bloodthirsty world of Texas high school football.
With college behind them East Great Falls High School alums Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) decide the time is ripe for marriage. After an embarrassing restaurant proposal that involves under-the-table fellatio and a missing ring Michelle accepts and sets her sights on the perfect wedding ceremony. Jim and his best buds Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) decide to leave Stifler (Seann William Scott) in the dark about the upcoming nuptials to avoid any possible calamities but it doesn't take long for the Stifmeister to figure things out. Stifler the only one of the gang who has not matured since high school lays on the charm--and the Lacoste sweaters--and quickly gains acceptance from Michelle's stuffy parents and her attractive sister Cadence (January Jones). The film basically revolves around Jim trying to turn Michelle's dream wedding into a reality while Stifler unintentionally foils his friend's every effort. American Wedding follows the same formula as its two predecessors and while there are some really funny gags here you can spot their setup from a mile away. When Stifler for example accidentally feeds Michelle's wedding band to a dog waits on it to pooh it out then scoops up the jewelry with a paper doily we are hardly flabbergasted when it is later mistaken for a truffle. And that just about sums up the movie: funny but formulaic.
In the first two American Pie movies Biggs's character Jim was always a key comedic player. For instance who could forget his Internet snafu with Nadia the foreign exchange student or the Crazy Glue incident at the beach house? But while American Wedding is all about Jim and Michelle's wedding Biggs and Hannigan take a back seat to the laughs here: they're the stressed-out grown-ups. Also turning in a more muted performance is Nicholas as pal Kevin who doesn't appear to have a purpose at all in this installment--although he does provide a bit of comic (albeit non-speaking) relief during Stifler's botched attempt at a bachelor party. Contrary to Jim Michelle and Kevin who have blossomed into somewhat dependable adults Scott's character Stifler has degenerated. Stifler is more crass and obnoxious than ever perhaps even a little too over-the-top. The actor whose performance stands out the most in this comedy is Thomas in the role of Finch. Thomas has taken the character's haughtiness and peculiarity to a new level fine tuning Finch's attributes and stylishly transforming him from a high school geek to a cool brainy college graduate. Eugene Levy who is back in the role of Jim's overly involved father but his shtick has become redundant. His only purpose in the films is to walk in on his son at every inopportune moment.
All three films in the American Pie series were penned by screenwriter Adam Herz and produced by Paul and Chris Weitz--who also served as directors on the original--but they have all gone through different directors; the J B Rogers-directed American Pie 2 and now American Wedding helmed by Jesse Dylan (How High). Like the second installment American Wedding has its moments and there are a handful of truly funny ones including a scene in which Jim shaves his pubic area and dumps the hair out the window where it blows towards a group of unsuspecting guests (and the cake). But unlike this particular instance most of the jokes suffer from overkill; the cameras keep rolling long after the yarn stops being funny. Others are stereotypical like Stifler's dance-off with a patron in a gay club while others including a midnight rendezvous in a dark hallway closet are predictable. But even though the film revolves around the now all-too-familiar characters Herz has matured them in a way that still makes them both amusing and endearing. Don't however look for Oz (Chris Klein) Heather (Mena Suvari) Vickie (Tara Reid) or Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth). The filmmakers believe these characters weren't needed since the story wasn't about them anymore but it would have been nice to mention them and what they were up to.