Friday, March 29, 2013

Down with Sinister Lies!

     In today's crop of DVD reviews we reap the French equivalent of The Big Chill, another preachy film about failing schools & a horror film that was actually pretty good for once.  Might as well dive in...

  Won't Back Down - You know, this picture has made me a believer.  No, not about the problems in our modern school systems, I was already a believer about that.  It has made me a believer that even someone as talented as Viola Davis faces great difficulty finding decent roles as a middle aged black woman in Hollywood.  How else can you explain the two time Oscar nominee accepting this role in Won't Back Down?  She does a great job (as always), but even someone as seasoned as she is unable to elevate this material into something more.  Maybe they should have given her the Oscar for The Help while they had the chance.
     That explains her choice, I suppose, and actresses Holly Hunter and Rosie Perez haven't exactly been beating offers off with a stick the last few years either, but didn't Maggie Gyllenhall get nominated for an Oscar for Crazy Heart just a few years back?  And she follows that triumph up with this film and Hysteria?  I'm a little lost.
     I'm sure that when Daniel Barnz (who also directs) and Brin Hill sat down to write this screenplay, it was with the best of intentions.  I'm sure that they really wanted to call attention to the problems of American schools, celebrate those who are working to fix it, and inspire others to do the same. They might as well have written a greeting card.  What they've produced is an obvious and cloying message movie.  Message movies belong on television as after school specials, but occasionally they get enough stars attached to them that they wind up on the big screen.
     The performances by the two lead actresses DO make the film somewhat watchable, but all in all it's a bit of a snoozer, unfortunately.  To Ms. Davis and Ms. Gyllenhall, demand that your agents find you something worthier of your talents.  This time, Don't Back Down...3 of 5 stars.

  Sinister - I have not seen writer/director Scott Derrickson's creation The Exorcism of Emily Rose but now I feel as if maybe I should go back and watch it.  I love a GOOD horror movie, but even a Movie Frog like me sees so few of merit nowadays.  They mostly go in for the gross out, replacing elements like suspense and mystery with blood, guts, and (cheap looking) special effects.  That is not the sort of film that Mr. Derrickson and co-screenwriter C. Robert Cargill have crafted here at all.
     Sinister is full of suspense AND mystery.  It has a sufficiently original villain with a credible back story.  It goes for creepy more often than it goes for shock value (the slow motion movements of the ghost children who vanish in such a way that you can almost see them dimension hopping is a particularly nice touch).  It takes some effort to craft interesting characters, and builds a sub-plot of family drama that actually works.  It tells a real story that actually somewhere.
     Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a capable veteran actor like Ethan Hawke in the lead.  He plays the part for all it is worth without ever going too far over the line.  We share his curiosity, frustration and terror because it is always in reaction to what has happened.  His acting never telegraphs what is coming; the viewer believes that he is just as surprised by every twist as they are.  Relatively unknown supporting players Juliet Rylance (as his wife) and James Ransone (as Deputy So-and-So) also lend much stronger back up than you usually expect from this oft-maligned genre.
     The best part, however, is that Sinister doesn't fall apart in the third act.  The threads of the mystery all come together into a cohesive whole.  While the big reveal was a scenario that had occurred to me, I never knew for sure how things would work out until they actually did.  There was no deus ex machina, no plot holes, and no collapse of characterization.  It all made sense.  I'm sure there will be a pointless sequel, and it will disappoint terribly.  Until then, I'm going to just be thankful that The Cabin in the Woods wasn't the only good scare that 2012 had to offer...4 of 5 stars.

  Little White Lies - In many ways, French director Guillaume Canet's latest film Little White Lies is just a typical movie about a group of friends in their thirties and forties who get together once a year and go on vacation.  It contains an added twist in which one of the usual suspects is back home in the hospital after a terrible accident on his motor bike, but largely it is full of the sorts of twists, turns, and yes, "little white lies" that are typical of such a film.
     What makes it a much better watch than it sounds like is the phenomenal cast of French stars, many of which you may actually be familiar with.  Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, Inception) is a given as she makes as many films in English as she does in her native tongue (maybe more).  Francois Cluzet became world famous just this year for his star turn in The Intouchables.  Gilles Lellouche first came on my radar in the excellent thriller Mesrine: Killer Instinct.  Jean Dujardin is, of course, the recent Best Actor winner for The Artist.  All do great work here (even if Dujardin's screen time is rather limited), and make the film worth watching, even if you do feel a bit like we've been here and done this...4 of 5 stars.

  Related articles:  The Help reviewHysterical Peace of Purgatory (Hysteria review), The Cabin With the Goods (The Cabin in the Woods review)

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