★ / ★★★★
I suppose the main strategy is to flaunt the star power of its four leads—Maika Monroe, Bill Skarsgård, Kyra Sedgwick, Jeffrey Donovan—and hope it is enough to entertain because “Villains,” written and directed by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen is just another toothless, mindless, and forgettable black comedy. It is exasperating enough that the premise isn’t fresh—a pair of amateur criminals breaks into the home of married and deranged murderers—but there is also a drought of genuine surprises throughout its interminable ninety-minute run. The material hints at a darker underbelly on occasion—like keeping a child chained up in the basement from what it appears to be years—but the performances consistently function on a try-hard comic level; there is not one scene in which viewers are not reminded that we are seeing actors act. They might as well just sport funny hats while standing in one spot doing nothing and pass that as comedy. In the middle of it, a thoughtful audience is forced to wonder what the movie is about and if the writers themselves had an inkling. I think I know what it’s going for: an exploration between greater and lesser evils on collision course. But there is no tension here, no deep thoughts, and certainly no understanding of basic human nature. There is no drama and thus there is no movie worth seeing. Move along.
★★★ / ★★★★
While admiring cute puppies in front of a pet store, Linda (Kyra Sedgwick) meets Luiz (Camilo Gallardo), a university student from Spain whose visa is about to expire in a few days. Not one to have much luck when it comes to romance, Linda is reluctant at first but she is won over eventually because Luiz knows exactly what to say to her and how. After he supposedly leaves for Spain, however, Linda catches him in a bar with another woman. Linda is furious. She makes a personal promise: she will focus only on her career and not get in a relationship any time soon.
Written and directed by Cameron Crowe, “Singles” does a good job in setting the pace of three relationships on a precipice of change which is particularly a challenge because dispersed among the three plots are colorful commentaries from people who have recently gotten out of relationships and those looking to get in one. It might have come across gimmicky, trite, than a necessary moments of insight within and outside of the story being told.
While Janet (Bridget Fonda) and Cliff (Matt Dillon) do not have the most interesting romantic relationship, their storyline is arguably the most rewarding because Janet is allowed to change in a meaningful way. Initially, Janet is used as merely a source of comedy due to her unhealthy level of attachment to the grunge-rocker who does not care for her affections. I was annoyed by yet another portrayal of a dumb girl throwing herself onto a man who clearly does not want her. As the screenplay unfolds, I realized that the material wishes to offer a statement. Janet is like liquid: an available man is a container she feels she must fill order to satisfy him.
The messages are geared toward people in twenties. Although the lessons Janet learns about self-esteem and self-empowerment may seem obvious, a lot of young women (and men) will be able to relate to her on some level. For example, there is resonance during moments when she is so desperate to be liked, she actually considers altering her body to fit someone else’s fantasy, or worse, her idea of someone else’s fantasy. While film lampoons her in the beginning, the picture is willing to change gears and allow us to care what might happen to her. Unlike many of the characters in the film, she has real thoughts and insights about what it means to be single and alone versus single and free.
The couple in the centerpiece involves Linda and Steve (Campbell Scott). Their interactions are sweet and romantic but sometimes heartbreaking and forced. Although there are chunks of the film when I felt like I was watching a television series because of the type of conflicts they must deal with, Sedgwick and Scott have a nice chemistry which keeps their storyline afloat. I would have preferred to know more about what Cliff really thinks about Janet. It wouldn’t have hurt the material if it had offered the audience a twist involving the inner-workings of Cliff’s mind. It is difficult to believe that he is stoned all the time and all he seems to care about is his band.
And then there is Debbie (Sheila Kelley): so desperate to no longer be single, she actually advertises herself on television so that she can have a pool of options. It can be argued that the amusing scenes surrounding Debbie make a statement about her relationship with herself. Debbie is the antithesis of Janet because, unlike the latter, the former does not seem at all interested in looking in the mirror and asking difficult questions about what she really wants. And she wonders why nothing seems to work out for her.
The Possession (2012)
★ / ★★★★
A woman stands in an empty room in front of a wooden box with strange engravings. Unable to withstand the ghostly whispers coming from it, she retrieves a hammer with the intention of destroying it. But before she is able to swing her weapon, she is flung across the room several times by an unknown force and her body is contorted in ways that no average person can achieve without getting sprains or broken bones. When her son enters the house and sees her body, he lets out a scream of horror.
“The Possession” is the kind of horror movie that is more than willing to go for big scares but its efforts are ultimately ineffective because the screenplay lacks the patience to build up a scene and then escalate to a catharsis. It is like watching an overconfident classmate who goes to an important exam without studying and then watching him deflated and regretful for not putting in the time to be more prepared.
Its supernatural core is anchored by a would-be realistic divorce situation between Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick). Clyde has purchased a new home and Stephanie has been seeing a new guy. Clyde gets their two daughters, Em (Natasha Calis) and Hannah (Madison Davenport), on weekends. Although Morgan and Sedgwick are good actors and they try hard to make the best of the material they are given, the picture is bereft of emotional core. One especially cheesy scene involves Clyde and Stephanie reminiscing about their marriage while watching a video on a computer. The way it is shot hammers us over the head that there is still a part of them that wish to get back together. While the supernatural element being the glue to repair what is broken between the ex-couple can work, it requires a certain level of subtlety that we barely notice its whirring machinery.
The picture is not shy from utilizing special and visual effects, from a roomful of moths to a hand coming out of a person’s mouth. The problem with this approach is that nothing much is left to the imagination. It feeds us the so-called scary images and once they are delivered, they do not linger in the mind. True horror seeps through our initial feelings of shock, lingers in the mind, and then reappears, in a similar form, when we are alone in the shower or in our beds. In here, it seems to be all about visual acrobatics without an understanding of psychology and what makes things scary.
Directed by Ole Bornedal, “The Possession” is filled with lights turning on and off, things being shattered like glass and cabinets, and shrill screaming. The high-pitched screaming bothered and angered me most. Are the writers, Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, so cynical that a girl’s screaming is supposed to be scary? I wasn’t afraid of the material; I was afraid that the shrieking would promote premature degeneration of the hair cells in my ears. At least we are given a chance to look at the contents of the box and that it houses a thing called a dybbuk, a Hebrew word for a dislocated spirit that can either be good or evil. You can read the title and make a very accurate guess which one it is.
★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, “Gamer” was set in 2034 where humans can pay a company (led by Michael C. Hall) to control other humans as if in a video game. One gamer (Logan Lerman) paid to control one of the death row inmates (Gerard Butler) to take part in a very violent “survival of the fittest” competition where the winner could earn his or her freedom. I have to admit that this movie did not interest me whatsoever going into it. The only reason why I decided to watch it was because of Hall. I was interested in what else he could do other than play a sympathetic serial killer in “Dexter.” This movie was a dizzying experience at best. Right from the first scene, we got shoot-outs right after another; body pieces and bullets were everywhere, the camera shook as if the cameraman was having a seizure and the main character acted as though he was on steroids. (Perhaps he was.) The filmmakers took the egregiousness to another level by shamelessly adding “ethical questions” such as whether it was right or wrong to put people in death row in a place where they could kill each other and eventually “earn” their freedom. It wasn’t at all difficult to arrive at the right answer: of course it’s wrong! It’s also wrong to control other human beings for sake of our twisted desires even if such vessels “volunteered” to do it for money. It would have been so much better if the picture embraced its own stupidity instead of trying to ask “insightful” questions. It’s also unfortunate how this film had so many talented supporting actors (Alison Lohman, Kyra Sedgwick, Aaron Yoo, Ludacris) but they ultimately didn’t do anything. It was easy to tell that they just did it for the money. They couldn’t have chosen to appear in it because of the script since it had no depth or wit. While the performances were fine, I really think the problem was the writing. The violence was highlighted even though the core was essentially about what it means to be human and actually live our own lives. The gratuitous explosions and nudity should have been secondary if the filmmakers wanted to grasp a more elevated social commentary. Hall made a good villain but, like “Gamer,” it’s the same old song and dance (pun intended for that riduculous musical scene).