★★ / ★★★★
The first kill in director David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” left a strong impression on me. It isn’t because the kill cannot be seen from a mile away nor is it due to the brutality of it. It is because the type of murder victim is new. It shows that not even children are safe from Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle), the boogeyman known as The Shape who went on a killing spree in Haddonfield, Illinois in 1978.
In the original, not one child is harmed physically. They could have been but we get the impression that it is the killer’s choice not to. And so perhaps it is a part of Michael’s behavioral profile given that he himself was only a child when he committed his first murder. The restraint gave depth to the character. Here, once the victim’s final breath is released, I caught myself feeling excited at the prospect of a back-to-basics slasher flick. Notice the kill is without blood. No weapon is used. It is over just as soon as it began. There is a ruthless efficiency to it. However, I regret to report it does not live up to its potential.
If anybody could have successfully put “Halloween” back to its original form, it ought to have been Green. With impressive movies like “George Washington,” “All the Real Girls,” “Undertow,” “Snow Angels,” and “Joe” under his belt, he has shown that he has the ability to strip his stories of plot complications and focus solely on the human drama. Now, that may sound strange given that a horror film is in question, but since the plot of this picture revolves around how Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has dealt—or not dealt—with the trauma of her encounter with Michael forty years ago, the screenplay demands that it has a thorough understanding of human psychology, particularly how a traumatic event can not only alter but actually shape a person’s life. It is clear Curtis could have done more with the character had the screenplay given her more of a challenge.
While some effort is made, it is all so… ostentatious. We observe Laurie shoot a number of guns, wield hunting knives, and stroll across her panic room. The script makes a big deal of Laurie’s broken relationships with her daughter (Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak) because the former’s intense preparations—just in case Michael escapes the mental facility and returns to Haddonfield—have taken over her life. Nearly all of it comes across rather superficial, tacked on, unnecessary. Greer is not fit for the role while Matichak does not command a strong enough presence to be memorable. Subpar performances aside, these characters are so underwritten, I did not care whether they would or could survive the night. A part of me actually wanted them to get killed because they felt more like decorations rather than natural extensions of our iconic survivor.
In the middle of it, I wondered if it would have been the braver choice to make a horror film with a running time of only fifty minutes to an hour. Instead of plot or character contrivances, the focus is on the meeting of predator and prey—only we do not know which is which any longer since forty years have passed. After all, it is the filmmakers’ decision to ignore all sequels. It is only appropriate to just go for the jugular, so to speak.
Green’s interpretation of “Halloween” is surprisingly loud given that he excels in the quiet. I’m not simply referring to the school dance scenes or guns being used excessively. (Do not get me started on the generous use of score—especially during the most inappropriate times.) I also refer to the images. There is excessive display of gore and sharp weapons piercing through body parts. There is even a man whose head is split open and we see it front and center. There are moments when violence is implied, but these are few and far between.
There are those who are quick to say that this is pretty much a remake of the original. I think these individuals are not observant enough. While Carpenter’s 1978 classic is more interested in building suspense and breaking it at the perfect moment, Green’s attempt leans toward evoking thrills through homage. Carpenter employs light and shadows to imply violence while Green hoses us down with gore. And that makes a whole world of difference.
Addicted to Fresno (2015)
★ / ★★★★
One way to pull off dark comedy to establish a specific, pointed tone but “Addicted to Fresno” is neither specific nor pointed about, well, anything. In fact, the picture, written by Karey Dornetto and directed by Jamie Babbit, likens that of a mediocre sitcom that thinks it is being edgy by introducing an unlikable character, but it is actually doomed for cancellation after about four episodes because no one cares and no one is watching.
The film relies solely on the performances of its leads. Judy Greer and Natasha Lyonne play sisters, Shannon and Martha, respectively, who work as maids in a motel in Fresno, California. Although Shannon is a recovering sex addict and a registered sex offender, Martha has a great reputation at work and so she is able to pull some strings for her sister. A few days on the job, however, Shannon ends up killing a man (Jon Daly) in one of the rooms immediately after falsely accusing him of rape in the attempt to hide from Martha that she is not at all taking recovery seriously. They decide to get rid of the body.
Greer and Lyonne share watchable chemistry and they do share some scenes with extemporaneous exchanges that are far more alive than what is written on the script. They seem to have effortless sense in terms of each other’s timing and so they are able to build off one another’s ability to take risks. It is depressing then that Shannon and Martha’s severely undercooked subplots, both involving potential romances, do not lead anywhere interesting.
The stronger strand is Martha’s inability or unwillingness, sometimes a mix of both, to recognize that one of her instructors at the gym, played by Aubrey Plaza, is so into her. There is more intrigue there than Shannon having an affair with her former therapist (Ron Livingston) and current co-worker (Malcolm Barrett) because Martha’s interactions with Kelly reveal something new about the character at times. On the other hand, Shannon is almost always unpleasant—which is a mistake in a protagonist in a dark comedy. It would have been far more interesting if Shannon were written as unpredictable as opposed to tactless.
Unpredictability might have paved the way for Shannon to show heart, strength, bitterness, weakness, flaw, and many of the elements that make up a character with whom we can relate with despite first impressions that we do not have anything in common with her. Greer is a performer with range and enthusiasm so it is curious that the screenwriter had not chosen to take advantage of making the character colorful—even just within the darker hues of blues and gray. Instead, role could have been played by anybody.
Aside from two of three snappy dialogue, “Addicted to Fresno” offers nothing special and that is death to the comedy genre. Dark comedy is especially difficult to pull off because it is, in its core, a character study. Here, the writing barely scratches the surface. Because not one aspect of the screenplay is on top form before shooting, the writer fails to give the project a chance to take off.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
As Jeff (Jason Segel) relaxed on the couch in the basement while smoking hookah and watching television, the man on the infomercial urged his viewers to pick up the phone. A beat later, the phone rang. Perplexed by this coincidence, Jeff, a man who believed in everything happening for a reason and a big fan of M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs,” picked up the call. The man on the other line was looking for Kevin, but no one lived in that household other than Jeff and his mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon). Given a favor by his mom to pick up supplies at Home Depot, Jeff ended up following various clues as to who Kevin was and how that person was connected to him. Based on the screenplay and directed by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass, despite being submerged in coincidences, “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” was clearly about love and family. This was dealt with in three fronts: the crumbling marriage of Pat (Ed Helms) and Linda (Judy Greer), Sharon and the instant messages sent to her by an anonymous co-worker who claimed to have a crush on her, and the barely existent bond between the two brothers, Jeff and Pat. Because the human element was believable, even though strange coincidences piled on top of one another, it was always easy to relate to the characters. What I found most interesting was most of them viewed themselves as painfully ordinary and they defined their lives by the ordinariness of every day. There was talk of dreaming about eating at fancy restaurants, living The American Dream, and visiting exotic, faraway places– all of which promised excitement and self-fulfillment. And then there was Jeff, happily ensconced in the possibility of small magic embedded in the routine. He was the heart of the picture and Segel embodied his character with quiet pride. Although Jeff towered over people in stature, he wasn’t domineering in terms of physicality and comportment. He looked soft and slow-moving. I liked that he felt he didn’t have to prove anything to anybody. Naturally, since he and Pat were almost complete opposites–one a dreamer, the other a pragmatist–there was tension in their relationship. Although not an exact parallel, it was an angle that I could relate with because my brother and I differ in about every respect. When Jeff and Pat argued, there was an obvious sense of humor in their disagreements yet the resentment they had for one another was consistently hidden underneath pointed words and phrases. The script stood out not just because it had an ear toward how people really talked but it wasn’t afraid touch sensitive truths that may go unnoticed to, for instance, people who are an only child. The film’s weakness, however, involved Pat and Jeff spying on Linda because she was potentially having an affair. It went on for too long and most of the clichés didn’t have enough twists in them to make the subplot interesting all the way through. At times it felt so convoluted that it began to affect the pacing of what was going on in Sharon’s place of work. I also wished Greer was given more to do because she has such range in comedy and drama. “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” showcased a thirty-something protagonist with not much aim in life–probably not many of us can relate to. But he wanted to be understood and surely everyone can relate to that.
Barry Munday (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Barry Munday (Patrick Wilson), despite his pudgy frame, was a womanizer. He exuded confidence which charmed some but repulsed others. When an underaged girl (Mae Whitman) lured Barry in a movie theater, her father, with a trumpet in hand, walked in on them and hit Barry in the groin. Doctors at the hospital informed him that there was nothing they could do to save his testicles so the boys were going to have to be removed. A couple of days later, to Barry’s surprise, he found out that he had impregnated a woman named Ginger (Judy Greer), the ugly duckling of a well-to-do family (Malcom McDowell, Cybill Shepherd). Based on a novel by Frank Turner Hollon, “Barry Munday” was amusing only half of the time because the director, Chris D’Arienzo, ended his scenes just when the punchline was delivered. For instance, when Barry met Ginger for the “first” time (he couldn’t remember their sexual encounter), the two shared awkwardness, which was mildly funny, but they were left with only references of the night in question. Ginger pointed at the area where they had done the deed and the specific song that played in the background but there was not one memorable joke that incited laughter. I felt as though the film could have played upon Barry’s vanity when he met Ginger. He obviously thought she was ugly so why not overtly play upon the fact that maybe he didn’t feel like she was good enough for him? Yes, the main character would have come off as mean-spirited but it would only highlight the journey he had chosen for himself. The filmmakers’ decision to not take on certain risks lowered the movie’s level of comedy and it missed potential character arcs. I enjoyed Chloë Sevigny as as Ginger’s sister, the favorite of the family. She wasn’t afraid to acknowledge her sexual needs. What I expected to see was her character being used to create a divide between Barry and Ginger. After all, there was a jealousy between the sisters. But I was glad it didn’t take that route. I believed Barry’s change toward becoming a better man because his evolution was mostly two steps forward and one step back. It took some time for him to decide to take real responsibility. However, what I didn’t find as effective was Barry suddenly wanting to know about his father who left before he was born. It offered an explanation involving why Barry turned out to be a womanizer when it didn’t need to. Most men just can’t help but want the idea of being with other women. And that’s okay. Anyone who had taken a psychology course could surmise what the film was trying to say. It implied that his father’s absenceled to his desperate assertion, through being with a lot of women, that he was a man. It was unnecessary because I felt as though Barry’s journey was already complete. He may still not be the kind of guy one would take home to meet the parents, but he was likable enough. We knew he eventually meant well.
13 Going on 30 (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Jenna was a thirteen-year-old girl who desperately wanted to belong in a clique led by a typical mean girl, unaware that her best friend had a crush on her. During Jenna’s ruined birthday party, she desperately wished that she was thirty and thriving; she woke up the next morning in a completely different body (Jennifer Garner) and had no memory of what happened in her life since her terrible 13th birthday party. She had to learn a lot of things such as her best friend being no longer the guy who truly cared for her (Mark Ruffalo) but the mean girl (Judy Greer) she wanted to impress in middle school. This is the kind of movie where we can clearly see how it would all end right from the beginning but I couldn’t help but enjoy it. It was well-aware of its predictability so it made the journey to the finish line so much fun by throwing us good and bad 80s references. It was as light as cotton candy and as sweet as bubblegum but it had wit, intelligence and charm. It was willing to wear its heart on its sleeves, which sometimes made me cringe because it didn’t know when to stop (for instance, Garner joining her parents in bed), but I thought it worked most of the time. Garner was perfectly casted because she was so good at being wide-eyed and innocent. I thought she was so adorable dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and when everybody joined in, I couldn’t help but laugh and tap my feet. As for the romance, Ruffalo and Garner had perfect chemistry. Watching them together had its syrupy moments but I always felt a certain tension or awkwardness between them because their characters hadn’t spoken to each other in a long time. I think they captured the essence bumping into someone you knew from high school and you had no choice but to make small conversation in order to not seem rude. However, I think the picture could have worked more on the cold-hearted Jenna. The script kept bringing up the fact that everybody was scared of her because she was conniving and had no problem abusing her power. I was curious about her darker side. By exploring that angle, I think the movie could have delved into Greer’s character a lot deeper. After all, there is often pain and jealousy between two friends having to compete against other. Directed by Gary Winick, “13 Going on 30” is a bit too safe in its approach but it’s still a highly enjoyable romantic comedy. It could have easily have overdosed with twists and turns because of the magical element that helped to drive the story forward but it refrained. It wasn’t as good as Penny Marshall’s “Big” but it was able to acquire some magic unique to its own.
Village, The (2004)
★★ / ★★★★
The first time I saw M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” back in 2005, I didn’t like it because I thought it was too strange for its own good and the pacing was too slow. I’m happy to have given it more than one chance because I thought it got better upon multiple viewings. The story involved a small village terrorized by creatures in the woods. For some odd reason, skinned animals started appearing in greater numbers but the leaders of the village (William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson) had no idea what they have done to anger the creatures. As the younger residents (Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, Judy Greer, Michael Pitt) lived a life of relative bliss thanks to the secrets they have not yet discovered, chaos started destroy the village from within until a blind girl, played by Howard, went on an important quest through the feared woods. I thought the second half of the movie was stronger than the first half. While the first half had the bulk of the story, I constantly waited for small rewards that would keep me glued to the screen until its climax. Unfortunately, those small rewards did not deliver so I felt like the story could have gone in any direction. I questioned whether it wanted to say something about the specific group of people in relation to the environment they built for themselves or if it wanted to be a psychological-supernatural thriller. The lack of focus lost me. Fortunately, the second half was when everything started to come together. I’ll try not to give anything away but I enjoyed the way Shyamalan incorporated the reality and the supernatural. Specifically, when Howard went into the woods and encountered something she did not at all expect. There were twists on top of another and it made me think without feeling any sort of frustration which I think is difficult to accomplish. The scenes in the woods were beautifully shot but at the same time the beauty was sometimes masked in an ominous feeling of dread and anticipation. I can understand why a lot of people would consider “The Village” one of Shyamalan’s worst projects especially if they’ve only seen the movie once. The pacing was indeed quite slow and there were a plethora of questions with open-ended answers concerning the characters’ histories and the multilayer mystery surrounding the village. However, the second half piqued my interest (even though I’ve seen it before) and I thought it was very well done without overdoing the twists. At its best, “The Village” is imaginative and unafraid to take risks; at its worst, “The Village” is a bit insular and may drown in its own vanity.