Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Devil" (2010)

M. Night Shyamalan may no longer be able to aptly write or direct a movie, but there's no denying he's a good storyteller. In perhaps what it could be considered an attempt to reinvent his image, "Devil" is the first entry in a planned series of movies being called the Night Chronicles which are produced by Shyamalan and stem from his original story ideas. He comes up with the story and has others do the work. So, while this first feature, "Devil," has direction from Drew Dowdle ("Quarantine") and a screenplay from Brian Nelson ("30 Days of Night"), the story comes from the mind of Shyamalan, and as a result the movie will more than likely still be placed on his reputation. It's a good thing, then, that this movie doesn't suck.

The premise is intriguing: a group of five strangers get stuck in an elevator inside a high-rise office building only to then be tormented by one of their own who may or may not be the devil himself. Equally intriguing is the deliciously ominous opening credits panning across an upside-down Philadelphia skyline which is fittingly unsettling. This initial intrigue expands beyond just the setup as there's actually a lot more to the story than just what the trailers hint at and qualifies this little movie as an effective claustrophobic thriller, a tightly-wound one boasting an efficient script and brisk pacing within a 80-minute running time.

The elevator inhabitants all have one thing in common, and it's that they're all sinners. The story goes that the devil takes human form and torments the damned before claiming someone as his own. There's a mattress salesman (Geoffrey Armend), a security guard (Bokeem Woodbine), an ex-Marine (Logan Marshall-Green), a beautiful businesswoman (Bojana Novakovic) and an older lady (Jenny O'Hara). Their time on the elevator together leads to rising tempers, skepticism and terror. The inhabitants are offed one by one in increasingly gruesome ways, but who's to blame? The most important character in the matter is actually one not shown in the trailers. He's Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), and he's dedicated to rescuing the trapped victims.

None of it is particularly scary, but it does maintain an uncomfortable level of suspense and tension that keeps you on edge without the use of any gratuitous violence or gore. The jolts come from some creative camera work and a nerve-racking use of darkness as the elevator goes pitch black at the most inconvenient of moments. The twist ending--yes, of course there's a twist ending--is a bit of a cheat but easy to forgive considering the circumstances. And don't dwell too much on the film's blatant musings on religion, fate and redemption. Just enjoy the tantalizing fun the premise of "Devil" promises and, for the most part, delivers.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Easy A" (2010)

In the tired genre of teen movies, which then got rejuvenated with the likes of "Superbad" and then exhausted again, here is "Easy A" which flips the genre on its head again pumping it with a level of sharp, intelligent satire that'll have even Diablo Cody blushing. And as a teen movie derived from classic literature, such as "Clueless," "10 Things I Hate About You" and "She's the Man," this movie uses Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlett Letter" to clever effect. It's the story of a girl named Olive Penderghast who is labeled as the school skank at East Ojai High School. The truth, though, is that she's a virgin, and it starts with one fib to her best friend about how she spent her weekend. Embarrassed to admit she spent it dancing around her room singing along to "Pocket Full of Sunshine," Olive creates an elaborate story about how she lost her V-card to a college guy.

Olive is embodied by Emma Stone (probably most recognizable from "Zombieland"), the beautiful, husky-voiced redhead who exudes genuine charm and sass in every single scene. Sometimes there are those actors who go unnoticed until a certain role lets them shine. This is Stone's role, and she's now, safe to say, a breakout star. She is irresistible and nothing short of remarkable as Olive who wears her skimpy lingerie wardrobe and embroidered letter A to match her reputation with such biting wit and irony that it goes right over the heads of all her peers. Nobody knew who she was at her high school until she became known for her floozy promiscuity, and now everyone knows her. Rather than denying the bold claims against her, Olive embraces her new imaginary and degrading identity.

Olive finds a way to put her new rep to good use by helping out a gay classmate named Brandon (Dan Byrd) who gets harassed at school. At a bustling party, Olive stages a drunken hookup with Brandon allowing for the bullying against him to stop. Word of this favor gets out, however, and while there are still those who believe Olive is legitimately whoring around there is now a sector of guys who are willing to pay Olive in gifts to let them say she slept with them. Lies get piled upon lies and stories continually get more twisted placing Olive under the scrutiny of the worst of the school population including Marianne (a hilarious turn by Amanda Bynes), an overly pious bitch who promotes Olive's exploits as a lesson to everyone else.

One of the movie's best features is Olive's relationship with the adults in this hormone-filled environment. Her parents are played effortlessly by the talented Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson who are admirable, understanding and almost impossibly down-to-earth, funny and kind. The scenes between them and Olive are full of joy and warmth. Thomas Haden Church is great as a teacher, Mr. Griffith, who attempts to view Olive's situation from an objective lens even as his wife, Mrs. Griffith (Lisa Kudrow), the school's guidance counselor, takes a certain interest in it. Lisa Kudrow is also great, and her maniacal whimsy makes me wish she could land a lead role in something soon.

Director Will Gluck ("Fired Up!") and writer Bert V. Royal have made "Easy A" not only a great comedy but a really great, a surprisingly and pleasingly great, movie that is near-perfect on its own terms. What makes it that good? It's the level of sophistication at which every instance of comic timing and variation has been spun from the simple and potentially one-trick premise. It's the way the movie is an ode to 80s teen movies while keeping with the spirit of today's habits of social networking and the rumor mill and doing so with such verve. And, of course, it's Emma Stone, the exuberant delight that she is.

Monday, September 6, 2010

"Machete" (2010)

Remember how "Grindhouse," the 2007 exploitation cinema epic from directing team Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, had those fake trailers in between the two features? Well, something had to come from those trailers, and here it is from Rodriguez: an expanded feature length version of his trailer and arguably the best of the trailers, "Machete." As the trailer was so pitch-perfect, Rodriguez certainly knows his way around the genre of trashy 70s action flicks. The movie works like a Hispanic blaxploitation movie, and while outlandishly violent, gory and preposterous it is also loudly political and timely which actually become the movie's most tongue-in-cheek moments. So now with the full movie to accompany the trailer, it boils down to whether or not less is more in the case of this battered and scarred federale.

Danny Trejo plays the lead, and at the age of 66 he carries the part effortlessly as a badass just as he did in the trailer. With a scar covered face, a tattooed body and long haggard hair, Trejo never cracks one smile and says lines like, "Machete don't text" with such flat, assured delivery that he's funny without even trying. With an all-business, blade-slashing attitude, he gets the women and mows down the bad guys with astonishing reserve. As Machete, he gets set up to assassinate a racist Texas politician (Robert De Niro) who wants to stop illegal immigration by implementing a large electric fence on the Mexican border. Arriving at the job, he gets double-crossed and left for dead (all described in the original trailer) leaving him to fend for his life and take revenge on those who hurt him. Revolucion is in the air, blades get sharpened and the blood begins to spew.

The movie's mood is perpetually pissed off, and while this allows the action and dialogue to seethe with rage it also detracts from its ability to have as much fun as it perhaps could have. A lot of bits are funny in their intentional B-movie flair, but many of the characters' one-liners actually fall flat on their face. And in its openly deadpan mockery of exploitation schlock full of gratuitous levels of sleaze, it tips too far into the self-serious realm, and for a few instances it becomes exactly the type of schlock it initially wants to satirize. Rodriguez and his co-director Ethan Maniquis have a love for the genre but too often forget to wink more knowingly at their audience.

There are some absurdly brutal action sequences including the rousing opening along with one involving a person's intestines and medical utensils and another boasting the creative use of gardening tools such as a weed whacker. A lot of this action, however, is front-loaded and wears out its shock value far too early in the rather lengthy running time. It begins to lose momentum by the end when the chaos should have been ramping up the most. A lot of it turns into waiting for certain bits from the fake trailer, which do make their way into the real thing, and they end up being some of the very best parts. Some of the mid-section turns to unnecessary plodding, which goes to answering the initial question of whether or not less is more.

From Steven Seagal who has the appearance of a lumpy piece of meat to Jessica Alba and Michelle Rodriguez who are equally obliged to just look hot, the ensemble cast is great and everyone appears to be having a blast. Robert De Niro and Jeff Fahey are a hoot, and best of all is Lindsay Lohan with the way her character is introduced considering her recent antics in the tabloid spotlight. She spends the majority of her time completely naked and eventually dons a nun outfit toting around a machine gun. While "Machete" may not stand among the likes of Rodriguez's "Planet Terror," it's worth seeing if not just for Lohan's outrageous final screen performance before her time in jail.