RECENT FILM REVIEWS: ORPHAN and DRAG ME TO HELL

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DRAG ME TO HELL

There is nothing quite like having an entire movie theater to yourself. And I had just such an experience at today’s matinee showing of Sam Raimi’s latest DRAG ME TO HELL.

Though that said, DRAG ME TO HELL is obviously a film that plays to having the crowd experience. The jumps, and exclamations of the audience are part of the gestalt in a film such as this.

But having the theater to myself gave me a chance to evaluate Raimi’s film as a film, rather then just a theater experience. And as a film the first 2/3rd made me quite remember why the name Raimi is legendary. He remains an exciting, innovative filmmaker. You can see on the screen all the timing and experience he brings from his Indie days, his big budget days, even his TV days, and it makes the first two thirds of the film quite fun.
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The story perhaps relying a little too much on gross out gags, for the juvenile audience, but it is an easily overlooked flaw. It is not perfect by any means but the first 2/3rd of the film moves at a brisk enough pace to keep you from looking at the seams of the movie.

SPOILERS:

However from the séance onwards, the film becomes a little too campy. The wire-fu possessed dancing dude, is pretty much where the film loses me (dancing characters appear to be Raimi’s Achilles heel. I say that to be tongue in cheek, because unlike many, while I agree the third SPIDERMAN was the weakest of Raimi’s trilogy, as a whole I quite liked it. And found the dancing sequence in that film quite enjoyable, however not in this film).

The possessed guy, assistant to the medium who tries to exorcise the demon, his whole appearance in the movie seems like what it is, contrived, and calls attention to itself in a bad way. He comes in and comes out to be the weakest portion of the film. So from that point on the film feels really forced, particularly the ending just seemed (the name of the movie to the contrary unlikely) slapped on to give the audience an unconventional ending.

I think with any ending [spoilers], the film has to earn that ending; has to earn its happy ending or earn its downer ending. This film did not earn its ending.

The ending felt, rather than coming out of the film we were seeing, as if it were there for no other reason then to appeal to an audience that increasingly confuses sensationalism and extremism with quality.

Being an optimist I think most films earn their happy endings. I’m a believer in happy endings. So for a film to have a downbeat ending, it has to, through the internal logic of the film, earn that ending. Films that fail to earn their downer ending, are films like THE MIST (its ending felt forced, and tacked on. But so did most of the film).

As far as examples of movies that earn their downer ending: DESCENT, Raimi’s own EVIL DEAD films, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, SEVEN, Carpenter’s THE THING, etc.

Unfortunately DRAG ME TO HELL’s ending is more MIST then DESCENT.
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And I understand that studios increasingly gear films toward an audience that filmmakers are aware can’t appreciate plot, or subtlety, or even beauty, but just bodily fluids and banality.

So increasingly filmmakers crank out lowest common denominator films to lowest common denominator audiences. They create caricatures rather than characters, protagonists as objects for audiences to laugh at or feel superior to (for not being in their shoes). And I think that’s a dangerous itch to train the American public to get used to being scratched; to objectify and even enjoy the pain of the other. There’s a dangerous grooming of the audience that filmmakers are gearing their movies toward; a dangerous commentary about what our degenerating fictions say about our society’s degenerating freedoms.

But such pandering was not something I expected from a filmmaker like Raimi. And to his credit it’s not something I got for the bulk of the film. But unfortunately it is the ending that defines the journey, and I think the film swerved into oncoming traffic at the end.

The ending flew in the face of the internal veracity/logic of the film. How many blank sealed envelopes, with a round item in it are you likely to find in a car? It is illogical (in the logic of the film) that the protagonist would mistakenly pick up a duplicate envelope, or that such a duplicate envelope would just be sitting in the car. As soon as she lost the envelope, then found it again I was on the alert for just such an ending as we got. But I was hoping Raimi wouldn’t be as… slapstick as that.

And that is the perfect word for the ending, it felt slapstick rather than narrative, or emotive, or meaningful.

I think DRAG ME TO HELL is not a film that people who raved about it in the gestalt of the theaters, will judge it as favorably upon second viewing. I think the clumsy nature of the 3rd act, will be clearer when revisited.

An ending has to be a product of the convictions and craft of the filmmaker, as well as the strength of the script/story; and should not be an interchangeable thing. A film is not a video game, it shouldn’t have multiple endings. It is a narrative that should like a novel, build toward a singular end. DRAG ME TO HELL, its name to the contrary, felt untrue to its end.

So all in all, a film worth seeing just for Raimi’s directorial style, but a flawed film. It is a fun date/group movie for most of its running time, but just be aware the ending does not hold up.

**1/2 out of ****.

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ORPHAN

Saw ORPHAN last week with a friend, and in a packed theater, and it was a very odd experience for me. ORPHAN is a thriller with a creepy kid, that’s all you need to know going in. That’s all I knew. It is a technically pretty damn impressive film, that does everything it wants to do, with a nice twist I did not see coming, but I really did not enjoy this film. Because for all its craft, its cliches got on my nerves. (I’m going to avoid the central spoiler of this film, because it is great and you should see it for the twist alone, that said to discuss what I don’t like about the film is impossible without discussing a few other things about the film. So these are very minor obtuse SPOILERS, but they are spoilers, so go see or rent the film first, and come back to compare our takes on the film. You have been warned! 🙂 )

F**K I’m sick of characters of color being in a movie just to buy it. SICK OF IT. It was piss poor filmmaking three decades ago, and it has just gotten to be a more pathetic crutch today. Which is why I’m such an effing fan of John Carpenter films. Wow, great movies, where the character of color doesn’t necessarily have to be the victim or the villain. And where he typically has more than one character of color. Imagine that? Man, I understand roles are hard to come by for actors of color, but seriously to all actors of color out there: pick your roles with some care!

Because when you, the actor, are silenced… shuffle off this mortal coil; they… the images, will continue to speak for you. Actors like Poitier and Belafonte and Roundtree and Williams understood this. And while this principled stance has made their careers shorter than they otherwise would be, it has also made cinema better than it would otherwise be.

Here endeth that rant.

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Onto Cliche and rant two. The cliche of getting the upper hand on the villain, then turning your back on them. OH KNOW, NOT AGAIN!

The last time that was cool was in the first LETHAL WEAPON movie. It’s been done 5 million times since then, notice to filmmakers: IT IS NO LONGER COOL, INTERESTING, OR REMOTELY A SURPRISE so stop effing doing it! Grrrrrr! ORPHAN has this obligatory scene of “surprise the villain isn’t dead”, and it’s just lazy scriptwriting, lazy direction, lazy filmmaking.

And like I say, I quite like where the ending of ORPHAN begins to go, but that cliche just takes me right out of the film, and kills any enjoyment for me. And the whole movie is filled with frustrating and annoying cliches like that. Particularly the character of the husband is so stupid and whiny and blind, that I personally want to reach into the screen and strangle him. The actor Peter Sarsgaard is always such such a swarmy presence in his roles, though that did serve him well in the far better SKELETON KEY.

And the last thing that really kind of got me about this film, it’s really a very vicious film throughout. I mean, it’s bloody dark. Which is absolutely what the filmmakers were going for, but I have to say, I was pretty uncomfortable with the whole film. I’m no light weight when it comes to thrillers/horror, I’ve seen everything from UNIVERSAL CLASSICS to EXORCIST to SEVEN, Japanese Horror, Italian Horror, you name it, I’ve seen it. But a lot of this film revolves around violence around children, putting them in jeopardy, and while this has been done to good effect from films such as NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, LEMORA, WHO CAN KILL A CHILD, TOGETHER BROTHERS, etc., it’s always something I’m weary of. And here in ORPHAN there’s some really explicit violence, and implied violence, and language perpetrated around and at children. How parents of these young actors can be okay with their kids in such explicit scenes, I always find slightly disturbing.

All that’s on the bad. But on the good is that the performance of the cast, for the most part, is fantastic. Vera Farmiga as the mom, Kate Coleman, has been working since the 90s, but this puts her on the map for me. She completely ties you into this movie. CCH Pounder in a thankless role, delivers her usual solid and grounded performance (a great actress, who is typically underused). And the children Jimmy Bennett (The Young James T. Kirk from the new STAR TREK film, who only 13 already has over 30 film and TV credits to his name), and Aryana Engineer (in her screen debut) are excellent in really difficult and intense roles. But it’s the 12 yo Isabelle Fuhrman who is a revelation as the title character. It is an astonishing performance and one I would never have any 12 yo play. However in the long history of evil kid movies, without argument Isabelle’s performance takes the crown.

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Director Jaume Collett-Serra, a Spaniard, with this his third movie marks himself as a pushing the edge director to watch. If he can avoid the easy cliches, and the predictable scripts, he may become a house-hold name. Based on this film I’ll check out his previous two films: HOUSE OF WAX and GOAL II. And finally moving onto the writers, the story was by Alex Mace, and screenplay by David Johnson. Their twist I quite liked but, like the director, the writers need to avoid the clichés and the well worn choices of the genre.

An interesting film, with some really unnerving scenes. Not a film I walked out of the theater liking, though my friend— she was more a fan of it then I, but I can not argue that it was compellingly crafted.

An intriguing film, definitely flawed, but overall very capably put together. I wouldn’t recommend spending movie prices to see, but it is definitely one you should rent and decide for yourself. And let me reiterate if I didn’t make it clear, this is not a family film. IT IS NOT FOR KIDS, and is totally deserving of its R rating.

Okay those are all the reviews for this segment. See you next time!

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