Tag: rory culkin

Signs


Signs (2002)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a film with aliens in it, but they prove secondary to the story being told. Remove overt images of these extraterrestrials and notice how the drama remains highly potent. This is because M. Night Shyamalan’s masterful sci-fi horror-thriller “Signs” is actually about something. This is not the kind of movie in which otherworldly creatures visit our planet and humanity must wage war against them. Not one military tank or jet is shown, we hear not one rousing speech, not even a bullet is shot. The goal is to tell a personal story of a reverend who lost his faith six months ago following his wife’s death due to a tragic, senseless accident.

Shyamalan’s talent as a filmmaker and confidence as a storyteller is on full display here. He is fully aware that most viewers would likely be invested in the plot—at least initially—precisely because it involves extraterrestrials and so the work is equipped with curious scenes involving crop circles, baby monitors picking up bizarre trilling, and news broadcasts of what’s going on out in the world. But to tell an effective story, and for the viewers to be invested throughout, Shyamalan is also aware that it must be grounded in reality. Despite the fact that former reverend Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) was a man of religion, the material takes the time to discern between religion and faith often in subtle ways. And so by rooting the story in one man’s faith, or lack thereof, the subject commands universal appeal. Ultimately, it is a human story, specifically a story of loss, not an alien story or a religious story.

It terrorizes the viewers not with cheap jump scares but with increasing unease. When tension is no longer tolerable and something is finally is shown, it is precisely what we expect. A few examples: Graham and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) chasing off intruders around their farmhouse in the middle of the night, Graham going off on his own amongst the corn field with nothing but a flashlight, and Graham’s day time close encounter in front of a pantry door. Confirming our fears is itself the horror. It does not aim to blindside us, or trick us, or confuse us. It simply shows what we already suspect or know. Filmmakers who possess thorough understanding of what makes suspense-thrillers work employ this technique with confidence, like Alfred Hitchcock and Wes Craven. Get a beat even slightly wrong and the work is reduced to a sham. Pay attention to the excellent sound design—how it is used… and not used.

Even flashbacks are executed ever so carefully. It is the night when Father Graham was summoned to the scene of the accident so he could have a chance to speak to his wife (Patricia Kalember) for the last time. Although the flashback is broken into three segments, it is also a source of dramatic suspense. We already know that the wife would die given the central plot. But we do not know the following: the exact circumstances of Colleen’s death, who was responsible, and the final words between man and wife. Put these three segments together and the total length is a mere three to five minutes. However, there is such a wealth of information, one can argue it is actually necessary to divide this scene so viewers are given time to process. The pieces are provided during the right points in the story—one of them, daringly, shows up during the climax.

The movie is also terrifically funny at times. The approach is to allow a breath of humor amidst the mysterious goings-on so that we grow comfortable with the Hess family (Gibson, Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin). Through their sarcasm, dry wit, and self-deprecation, we come to understand how they think, how they perceive the world around them, how they solve problems. Conversely, we come to understand what hurts them most. And so when the observant and precise screenplay sets up confrontations among them, we feel the hurt they feel.

Mean Creek


Mean Creek (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Jacob Aaron Estes’ “Mean Creek” does something in special in that not once does it look down on its subjects: young people who must make a choice after something that cannot be taken back has occurred. The moral calamity these characters veer themselves through commands a seriousness that many movies about responsibility hope to delve into but ultimately only graze.

The only way to tell the story of what happens to these kids is with directness and simplicity. By stripping away potentially distracting elements like quirkiness in the dialogue, teleportation between perspectives, and turning on a soundtrack that gives a hint on how we should feel or what we should think, it makes room for introspection. We understand each of them–where they come from, their dominant personalities, what it is that hurts them most–and so we are given a chance to be honest with ourselves. We relate with them–even to the ones who appear to be the most despicable.

Sam (Rory Culkin) is attacked by George (Josh Peck) at school. Believing that fifteen minutes of detention for a week is not a good enough punishment for the wounds on Sam’s face, not to mention the social embarrassment, Rocky (Trevor Morgan), Sam’s older brother, is convinced that something else has to be done. But he is smart. Rocky tells Sam that they need to hurt fat George without really hurting him, at least not a kind of punishment that leaves a mark. So, a plan about a boating trip is made and George is invited. Since George does not have many friends, he happily accepts. He figures that maybe this time is a true opportunity for him to belong in a group.

There is a portentous aura that brews during the car ride to the river and when the boat is making its way downstream. Silence between dialogue is utilized when it counts. The water gently sloshing against the boat might as well be the kids’ guilt banging on drums. We wonder if they will ultimately go through with the plan. Sometimes the conversation is friendly. For a while, the game of truth or dare is full of laughs–as it should be. But there are other times when conversations turn ugly. George expresses his disgust about Clyde (Ryan Kelley) having two fathers at home. And then there is Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), the eldest of the group, whose life at home has been difficult since his father’s death. George has a knack for pushing everybody’s button. Something’s gotta give.

When the picture takes a dark turn, it is dealt with honesty. The kids who return home from the trip are changed somehow but the accompanying scenes are not predictable. There is no hyperbolic crying or screaming, just a feeling of exhaustion, disbelief, and wanting to hide from the world and oneself. The shame takes root and yet, surprisingly, I think it is what gives them a chance to recognize what should be done even if there is pressure to pretend like nothing important happened that day.

“Mean Creek” shares a similar consciousness with pictures like Larry Clark’s “Bully” and Tim Hunter’s “River’s Edge” because the story revolves around complicated choices before and after an irrevocable thing. In some situations, there is right and wrong. While choosing the wrong thing can be perceived as a moral tragedy, so is allowing oneself to become unaware of the fact that there is always an alternative.

Scream 4


Scream 4 (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Ten years had passed since Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) was stalked by Ghostface. She had written a bestseller based on her experiences and Woodsboro was the last stop of her book tour. Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) had gotten married. And while Riley, now a sheriff, was happy with the marriage, Gale was less than ecstatic because she missed being out in the field as a sassy reporter and solving crimes. It must be Gale’s lucky day because it seemed like there was a new killer in town. Directed by Wes Craven and written by Kevin Williamson, “Scream 4” felt fresh. That is an important quality because sequels tend to run out of ideas over time. This film was an exception because it took advantage of what social networking sites and fame meant to the new generation. The eleven-year break felt necessary. The challenge our beloved trio had to overcome was to quickly learn how to adapt to the new rules. Failure to do was tantamount to being a big-breasted dumb blonde who decided to investigate a strange noise upstairs. We all know what would eventually happen to that character. There were new horde of sheep ripe for the picking. Jill (Emma Roberts) was Sidney’s cousin but they were never really close. She had two spunky but good-looking best friends (Hayden Panettiere, Marielle Jaffe), an ex-boyfriend (Nico Tortorella) who cheated on her, and two horror movie geeks (Erik Knudsen, Rory Culkin) who had a crush on her galpals. There was also Deputy Judy Hicks (Marley Shelton), openly flirtatious to Dewey while on the job and Sidney’s assistant (Alison Brie) who was actually elated when she found out that teenagers were being butchered. Needless to say, all of them were suspects. After a self-satirizing and highly enjoyable first scene (with a nice cameo from Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell), I immediately got the feeling that no one, including Sidney, Gale, and Dewey, was safe. After all, they weren’t getting any younger. Perhaps the writer and director decided that it was time to pass on the torch. Furthermore, the teens were very similar to the characters in the original picture. What I loved was Craven’s awareness of that suspicion. He held onto our expectations, turned it upside down, and shook it with purpose. In doing so, the story actually felt unpredictable for a change. I paid more attention to where the story was heading next instead of the horror movie references or how knowledgeable the characters were about scary movies. I felt like there was more at stake this time around. Most importantly, “Scream 4” had something to say beyond the fences of horror pictures. Admittedly, the idea wasn’t fully developed but it’s far superior than torture porn where the violence depicted on screen were done simply for shock value. After a decade, the knife still felt sharp.

Lymelife


Lymelife (2008)
★ / ★★★★

“Lymelife” is about teenagers and adults in suburbia and their differing levels of unhappiness. I failed to enjoy this movie because I couldn’t find a connection with any of the characters. All of them were very damaged in some way and the tone was too depressing for its own good. There was not one well-adjusted character that could provide some sort of relief from all the drama and depression that the other characters were going through. Like typical melancholy stories about suburbia, everyone here was interconnected in some way. Alec Baldwin was cheating on his wife (Jill Hennessey) with Cynthia Nixon. Nixon’s husband (Timothy Hutton) was diagnosed with Lyme disease but was not unaware of the cheating that was going on. As for the young adults, Rory Culkin, Hennessy’s son, was in love with Emma Roberts, Nixon’s daughter, but the feeling was one-sided. Things got even more complicated when Kieran Culkin returned home from the army. I thought this movie was lazy when it came trying to figure out who the characters really were in their core. They were often one-dimensional which frustrated me so much because I felt like the actors could have done better with a stronger storytelling and script. I felt like the whole theme about hiding intentions was simply a set-up for the big argument near the end of the film with a lot of cussing and screaming. It really left a bitter taste in my mouth and in the end, I thought maybe all of the characters deserved to suffer because they were so afraid to break free from their own chains. There was one character I almost rooted for, which was Kieran Culkin’s, because even though he was abrasive and had a tortured soul, there was a certain self-restraint in his actions (especially in his key interactions with Baldwin) which suggested that he was not afraid to take control and avoid actions that might not have been worth it. Unfortunately, he wasn’t in the picture much. Writer and director Derick Martini should have added some sort of light on the journey toward leaving a dark period in these characters lives. Without that small glimmer of light, I often wonder why I’m watching something, which is almost always not a good thing because it means I’m not buying the situations being presented on screen. Some people might enjoy “Lymelife” if they find some sort of connection with the characters. Unfortunately for me, despite how long I waited, it never happened.