I'm sitting outside the Verizon Center, once again fighting for parking this week with the sports fans next door to my screening movie theatre. It reminds me, even when it matters, sometimes the winning team is a fluke, sometimes it's well deserved…
As Cinema Siren is meant to "guide you through a sea of celluloid," I'd like to direct you toward the more deserving teams of filmmakers releasing something this busy week at the multiplex. With spring break upon us, this early March weekend offers an odd mix of genres, with each vying for the top spot at the box office. Best of luck to them, they'd be replacing or be added to a top 10 where only two have even 50 percent positive reviews, and some of which are so bad they should be benched like the tasteless or very badly behaved player they are.
This week, we have four new movies of note, and I'll briefly give my thoughts and recommendations, so you know what you're getting into before you hand over your hard-earned cash and sit in expectation for upwards of two hours….
The Call: Don't Answer
This movie stars Halle Berry as 911 operator Jordan in a race against time to save a teenage abductee Casey (Abigail Breslin). For a story which centers on the potential torture, rape and death of a young girl, it starts off well enough. We learn why Berry's character is highly invested in keeping alive the girl at the center of the action.
She's been there before, and it didn't go well. This means not only will you, dear audience, be watching extended scenes of a terrified teen screaming and crying in the trunk of a car while the serial killer trundles along with her toward his torture lair and kill zone, you will also see the pre-show, where we learn how truly awful the villain is.
Jordan in the 911 "hive," talking Casey through ways of getting out alive, is tense and compelling. I would argue, however, that from the very first scenes, this movie is extremely unpleasant to watch, and qualifies as anything but a good time at the theatre.
But let's say you like high-octane suspense flicks where a lot is at stake, and teenage girls being chloroformed and punched is an acceptable plot point. Perhaps you, like Cinema Siren, would like to support a black lead actress carrying a film. In that case, she'd better be driven by making sound decisions.
Unfortunately, The Call quickly veers off-road to four-wheel in the Land of Stupid Choices, that place in horror usually littered with the bodies of promiscuous co-eds. The movie gets weaker and weaker and more far-fetched, as it becomes more and more a revenge fantasy. At one point, Jordan goes alone into a hidden underground hiding place.
I'm tempted to scream, but lean over to a fellow critic and say, "Alone?" to which he replies sarcastically, "Oh, she's got this!"
Suffice to say by the end of The Call I hated this movie so much, it made me sorry I couldn't have walked out a full half-hour before. There is no joy, no cohesion, bad choices and a truly gruesome premise. Good acting all around made my distaste all the more unfortunate. When your local theatre gets The Call, don't answer.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone: Tragic Magic
What happens when you mix great character actors Steve Buschemi and Alan Arkin, and funny men A-listers Jim Carrey and Steve Carell? It should be magic, right? If this was the movie equivalent of the magic trick where a woman gets sawed in half, there'd be blood all over the stage.
No question its heart is in the right place. Carell and Buscemi play lifelong pals who perform together as Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton, making big bucks in Vegas with assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) in an increasingly stale magic act. The two stars have grown to hate each other. When guerrilla street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) steals what is left of their audience with his new over-the-top stunts, they lose their jobs and break up. Will Wonderstone get his magic mojo back when he discovers his childhood magic idol Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin)?
For a comedy, this movie has few funny moments. It does, however, have its fair share of mean-spirited elements, along with an "ick" factor that overall can only be described as bad taste. The actors do a perfectly fine job. Alan Arkin builds a particularly interesting and well-developed character, like magic, out of a script made of thin air….Olivia Wilde plays Jane with a straightforward sweetness and optimism that flies in the face of the movie as a whole.
It is the writing, both the dialogue and the script, that can't seem to decide what it wants to be, or where it wants to go. It is wildly uneven, as is our commitment to any of the lead characters. If they had stuck with Alan Arkin as the movie's central figure, they would have had something…Added to the weakness in the dialogue is an ending, after intermittent attempts to make the story somewhat believable, that stretches credulity to say the least.
As the end credits roll, our hopes go poof. Let this one disappear from theaters; watch at home if you must. Honestly, you'd be better off buying a magic kit and spending the time learning a real trick or two.
Stoker: All in the Family — Hitchcock Style
Director Park Chan-wook makes his first English-language film with this Gothic creepfest, building suspense slowly with equal amounts of nerve and perve. The visual style is eye-strokingly gorgeous, with set decoration, production design, and editing that together make up for the holes in pacing and storyline.
Hitchcock is beyond an obvious influence, but clearly the film's inspiration, with several direct odes and parallels to Shadow of a Doubt, starting with the name of the introduction of "Uncle Charlie," which was also the name of the villain played by Joseph Cotton in the 1943 classic.
The story is of Evelyn Stoker (Nicole Kidman) and her daughter India (Mia Wasikowska). They have just lost Evelyn's husband Richard to a fatal car crash, when Richard's preppily handsome and fresh-faced brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) unexpectedly shows up to stay a while. In a country manor where time seems to have stood still, their already seemingly off-kilter world begins to completely unravel and heat up.
It is a sinister slow burn with a very European pace, reminiscent of Polanski's Repulsion. Psychosexual disfunction permeates the story. Chan-wook seems to excel at juxtaposing disturbing imagery like spiders crawling between India's legs with family scenes in the innocuously pea green parlor or at the family piano.
Mia's India sculls about dressed like she's in an Edward Gorey illustration, demonstrating a curiosity and intensity that leads the audience to question what's going on behind that deadpan stare of hers. Charlie is clearly more than he seems, and for better or worse we discover just how much more through the course of the movie. Evelyn is an ever-oppressive manipulative presence like a New England Blanche Dubois, but she may turn out to be the least concerning of the lot.
Though the last few minutes of the movie leave you scratching your head about motivation or deeper meaning (perhaps there is none), scenes in which the camera languidly captures what can only be described as an utterly demented family going about their demented doings will stay with you way after the end credits roll. A particularly memorable one recalling The Bad Seed had some audience members wide-eyed and clucking with dread, "No!"…If dark and Gothic is your thing, Stoker will give you the creeps you so richly desire.
Upside Down: See Gravity-Crossed Lovers in So Pretty Sci-fi
The creative idea to put young lovers Adam and Eden (Jim Sturgess and Kirsten Dunst) in two worlds that share opposing gravity and watch them try to find a way to be together is reason enough for curiosity about Upside Down. Alas, the script skips story continuity and any consistent explanation relating to the proceedings, so what could have been a great movie all around will have to survive on breathtaking dreamlike visuals and magnetic leads.
These two worlds are not allowed to fraternize, and are a metaphoric brick in the head about haves and have-nots. Down Below recalls a WW2 post-bomb blitz London. Up Above looks like Coruscant from Star Wars. Where the two meet, frolic, and fall in love as teens is like the most beautiful mountain landscape you've ever seen, only times two.
Nevermind the silly and sillier plot points, it's about the romance and the visuals, which are more than worthy to be seen on the big screen. Director/writer Juan Solanas uses photography and his experience training with famed cinematographer Felix Monti to create a strong personal artistic perspective with a surprisingly small budget.
Twilight shmilight, teens could do far worse than obsessing about this movie. You've never seen a couple so bathed in light and aglow with love and its accompanying optimism. Love may conquer all in the end, or leave them alone and dejected, but either way you'll be in for a dazzling cinematographic ride.
My vote, after going through these four movies, is for Upside Down and Stoker, both of which are in limited release, which might mean a bit of a road trip for some of you. They are both indie films, which means they were created on a much smaller budget, and allowed more freedom to those involved. How lovely that we might actually feel compelled to support what's good instead of what's big!
About this column: Leslie Combemale, "Cinema Siren," is a movie lover and aficionado in Northern Virginia. Alongside Michael Barry, she owns ArtInsights, an animation and film art gallery in Reston Town Center. She has a background in film and art history. She often is invited to present at conventions such as the San Diego Comic Con, where she has been a panelist for The Art of the Hollywood Movie Poster and the Harry Potter Fandom discussion. Visit her gallery online at www.artinsights.com and see more of her reviews and interviews on www.artinsightsmagazine.com.