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Red Eye (2005)

Wes Craven has long been a thriller/horror director, from the original A Nightmare on Elm Street to the iconic 90s slasher Scream. In 2005, he made Red Eye, a claustrophobic thriller that relies on its two young leads to make the most of its simple premise.

Rachel McAdams plays Lisa, a hotel manager who hates to fly. She’s about to hate it a lot more, thanks to the very menacing Jackson (played by Cillian Murphy) and his ice blue eyes. In perhaps the most contrived terrorist plot ever, Jackson threatens Lisa during a red eye flight to Miami with a choice: She can call her hotel and move the director of Homeland Security into a specific room so that Jackson’s employers can kill him, or she can have her father killed by an associate of Jackson if she doesn’t make that call.

When Lisa first meets Jackson, waiting for their delayed flight, he’s quite a charmer. He buys her a drink before they get on the plane and realize that they sit right next to each other. It’s not until the plane has taken off and there’s nowhere to go that Murphy transitions perfectly from mysterious and intriguing to psychotic and ruthless.

Craven builds on the naturally tight setting of an airplane with extremely close shots, especially on Murphy’s face as he intimidates his victim with murderous stares. The bulk of the film takes place on the plane ride, and it’s here where it’s at its best. Tons of suspense and tension, and although the other passengers are given the minimalest of roles, it doesn’t matter because the leads are so adept.

Rachel McAdams is cute and forceful as Lisa. One of the best things about Craven’s films is his consistently powerful female protagonists, and Lisa is no different. She’s a take-charge, competent, and successful individual, whose only flaw seems to be that she’s a bit too focused on her career. Despite the different ways that any one of us might react to her situation, it’s still easy to root for her and appreciate her different attempts to get out of Murphy’s trap.

Red Eye is full of clever instances, from truly hilarious comments made by background extras to the best damn way to hide a giant missile launcher on a yacht I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, its tense and witty start brings the movie to an uncharacteristically dull third act.

It’s when the characters leave the plane that the movie begins to deteriorate. The plane setting is replaced by Lisa’s house, bringing the story into the real world and shedding light on its unlikelihoods. Worse yet, Lisa’s intelligence and competence is usurped by standard horror victim tendencies - she very frustratingly doesn’t assault Murphy when he’s entirely unarmed, for no reason other than to draw out the movie’s thin premise.

Red Eye is a sometimes witty thriller that enjoys a very terse first hour. The last act is very disappointingly subpar, losing its self awareness and becoming the very generic movie that it seemed like it would rise above. Still, very strong performances by two attractive leads makes Red Eye a movie that’s worth checking out.

Final rating: 6.5/10

—James A. Janisse

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Get Low (2010)

Aaron Schneider’s Get Low is a pithy little movie partly based on folklore surrounding a hermit who wanted a living funeral. The hermit is Felix Bush, a cantankerous old man who has lived isolated from society for a couple of decades. Feeling that his end is near, he arranges his own funeral and plans to attend it, ostensibly to hear everyone’s wild tales that have sprung up about him over the years.

Felix Bush is played by Robert Duvall, an acting veteran at the age of 79. Bush is pretty indistinguishable from Duvall, and whether that’s due to brilliant casting or brilliant acting, it makes the movie either way. Full of quiet acerbic wit, Bush is an intriguing character who I was very interested to learn more about.

The supporting cast is just as pleasant. Bill Murray plays the owner of the funeral department that agrees to Bush’s bizarre requests. Murray oozes with avarice, always interested in the best way to make a buck, and essentially married to money since he seems to be the town’s only divorcee. Lucas Black plays his protege, an ethical foil to his incessant greed. The only time I’ve seen Black previously was as “Jeep” in the suicide-envokingly bad Legion, and I was grateful to see that, when given real material to work with, he held a strong presence on screen.

Sissy Spacek plays one of Bush’s old flames, and I found that it was her scenes with Duvall that were among the movie’s best. Both of these actors have decades of experience under their belts, and seeing them gently sweet talk each other will make you really believe that they have a life time of history between them.

Get Low has incredible acting, and it’s also a rural feast for the eyes. The 1930s setting provides a lot of natural beauty, taking us back to a time when a town and the nature around it were much more entwined, a much simpler time.

The problem with Get Low is that it really is simple to a fault.

The premise of a living funeral can only take a movie so far, and although a great deal is built up around Bush’s past, when the reveal finally comes at the end, it can only be described as underwhelming. We hear a couple of rumor mill reasons why Bush had originally gone into isolation throughout the movie, and I only wish that the true story was half as interesting as any of those.

Of course, that could be the point of the movie. It certainly seems as though it champions the mundane over the exciting, the flat realism over anything fantastical.

Get Low is a brilliantly acted affair set in a time that’s beautiful to visit. If that sounds like enough for you, then it’s probably worth watching. If, on the other hand, you enjoy an engrossing story, then you should probably sit this one out. It never tries to evolve past its original premise, and the stalled-out plot that follows isn’t enough to hold it up.

Final rating: 6.5/10

—James A. Janisse

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Predators (2010)

Robert Rodriguez’s “Predators” is the third movie in a series that began with Arnold Schwarzenegger running around Guatemala in 1987. This latest entry sees a group of the world’s most dangerous individuals paradropped onto a foreign planet, where they serve as game for a pack of Predators.

The movie wastes no time exploring the gears behind this situation, and that’s definitely a good decision. In a movie like this, I don’t care who dropped these characters here or why, I just want to see some bad-ass soldiers forced to work together to survive.

Unfortunately, these bad-asses are so one-dimensional that I couldn’t have cared less about who’d survive. Half of the characters don’t even mention their names, let alone display any aspects of personality. The screenwriters probably figured that audiences would be able to distinguish the characters by appearance, since there’s “the convict”, “the Russian”, “the Mexican” (frequent Mexican Danny Trejo), etc. Sure, I knew who was who, but I didn’t care about them at all.

The de facto leader of the group is played by Adrien Brody. I usually appreciate Brody, and I just had a great time seeing him in Splice, but I don’t like him in action-flick mode. He just throws on a gruff Batman-esque voice and growls his lines without any emotion. Alice Braga plays a role that curiously didn’t go to Michelle Rodriguez, and Laurence Fishburne is wasted with one of the smallest and insensible roles of his career. Topher Grace was actually all right to watch, but by the end of the movie I wished he had never been there.

The first half of Predators is slow and boring. Some very Lost-like shots begin a goalless trek through the jungle, with occasional obstacles such as CGI dog-boars and weird skinny mantis things that are never fully explained. When Fishburne appears, he lets the remaining survivors know that there are actually TWO type of Predators, “little ones” and “big ones”. The big ones are creatively known as “super Predators”, and are unfortunately a bit difficult to distinguish from the “class Predators” when they’re rolling around on the ground together fighting.

To be entirely honest, I hated this movie. I went in with an open mind, and even when I realized what I was in for, I was ready to accept a good campy action movie. Instead, I got a film that nobody cared about enough to look over before releasing.


There are absurd moments of laziness in this movie. After Brody abandons the last two members of the group, Braga and Grace, he goes and frees the “classic Predator” that was chained up by the “super Predators” for whatever reason. Classic Predator activates his ship from his wrist, including having it eventually take off without him. Super Predator then kills Classic Predator before also pressing buttons on his OWN wrist and having the Classic Predator’s ship blow up. Because that makes sense.

By far the lowest valley of the film is when Topher Grace turns on Alice Braga and poisons her. His motivation is non-existent; in fact, they’re currently captured by the Super Predator and his leg is broken, so the decision seems pretty self-destructive. The reason he gives, barely audible through Braga’s hardcore drug tripping, is that he feels like he belongs on the planet with the Predators, because even though he had to be saved multiple times earlier that day, he’s actually a totally bad-ass dude for real.


Predators is a stupid movie that only cares about decapitations and explosions. I expected Rodriguez to rejuvenate this series with an exciting but well-made action sci-fi. Instead, he gave us a bunch of characters who were only thought up as cool death scenes were imagined.

The movie’s ending is more open than a bar in Vegas, and I wouldn’t be surprised if these extraterrestrial hunters wind up with another movie. Hopefully, someone will just remember to edit that script.

Final rating: 2/10

—James A. Janisse

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Fatal Attraction (1987)

Fatal Attraction was a huge deal when it was released in 1987. Not only was it the highest grossing film of the year, it also gained 6 Oscar nods, including Best Picture. Somehow I managed to remain relatively unaware of the film until recently, when I was able to experience it in all of its infamy.

Fatal Attraction looks at the repercussions of extramarital affairs, especially when said affairs are with a psychotic woman. This particular psychotic woman is Alex Forrest, played by Glenn Close. Alex appears to suffer from a violent form of borderline personality disorder, prone to emotional reversals and manipulative behavior. Alex becomes obsessed with the man she knows is married. Michael Douglass plays the cheating husband, Anne Archer the hapless wife.

Close is clearly the highlight of the film. Sometimes she is frighteningly manic, and other times overbearingly sweet - both modes equally disturbing. One of the more terrifying things about Alex Forrest is her intelligence compared to her emotional maturity. She is clever in all the ways she gets around Douglass’s avoidance, but also cries and cuts herself when she doesn’t get her way. She’s like an intelligent, violent toddler that Douglass can’t get rid of. Glen Close gives a performance that may very well end up in your nightmares.

The film excels in thrills and suspense, and even dips into the horror genre for its memorable finale. Director Adrian Lyne spins the story out with a very effective touch. There are a number of scenes with great intercutting, including Close catatonicaly turning a light on and off, and the infamous boiling bunny sequence. Other scenes are brilliant in tone, like the clausterphobic library where Douglass confides in a colleague amidst heavy breathing and tall book cases.

The suspense builds steadily as Close goes further and further with her infatuation, and the movie keeps up pace. I’m pretty sure the sound of the phone ringing gets increasingly louder. By the last act, the phone’s ring sounded more terrifying than any big budget sound effect - all it took was simple conditioning. Well played, Mr. Lyne.

My only issue with the film is that it seems somewhat unlikely for Douglass and Close to end up having an affair in the first place. Douglass slips into bed with her very casually, making it seem like he’s done this frequently before. If that’s the case, then I don’t feel as much pity for him, even if he is get stalked. As for Close’s character, it seems dubious that she should have so steady a job with an affliction so serious, but maybe she was fine before old cheatin’ Douglass came around and messed up her world.

Fatal Attraction may have been made in the 80s, but the only thing that seems dated is the attire. It’s still an effective thriller that maintains constant suspense, and Glen Close delivers one of the best female antagonist performances I’ve ever seen. This is easily one of the greatest thrillers ever made. It should not be missed.

Final rating: 9/10

—James A. Janisse

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sunshine Cleaning (2009)

Sunshine Cleaning follows sisters Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as they try their hand at a new business. That business would be cleaning up after crime scenes and accidents, involving a lot of gross messes and bodily fluids. They’re unlikely candidates for the job, and at first their inexperience shows, but eventually it becomes more than just a source of income to them.

I had a great time watching this movie. The distinguishing feature of it, the “cleaning up after dead people” occupation, gives the story an obvious path, and I’ll admit that it doesn’t stray far from it. Still, the movie prevails by remaining optimistically upbeat throughout, while still being able to have a few deeper scenes.

The cast is no doubt the reason for the film’s cheery cadence. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt are an excellent pair of female leads. Adams is so insecure that her self confidence has to come through Post-It notes. Blunt is such a fuck-up that she can’t even keep a job down. Both find self-value in the clean-up job. It’s a simple but effective character arc that Adams and Blunt handle terrifically. Even with recent career missteps such as “Leap Year”, Adams has quickly become one of my favorite modern actresses.

Alan Arkin co-stars as their father, and when isn’t Arkin a pleasure to have on screen? Arkin provides a lot of the optimism of the film, supporting his iconoclast grandson and encouraging him to realize his talents. Steve Zahn is also in attendance, acting like a real human being for once. The ensemble creates a very realistic family - sure, they might be a little weird, but so is everyone’s family. Sunshine Cleaning is decidedly a character study, and it’s good because its characters are worth studying.

One of the most interesting characters in the movie is sadly mistreated, however. Clifton Collins, Jr. plays a one-armed store owner who goes to great lengths to help Adams out. Blunt initially calls him a freak, citing his dismemberment as the only necessary cause. Adams may not share her sister’s disgust, but it seems like she relies on him a whole lot - some might make a point she was using him.

Now I’m not saying that every guy who helps out an attractive girl should be rewarded with some sort of shot with her, but Collins, Jr. essentially starts her job training, and even watches her kid for him - a kid who just broke a model airplane of his. In the end, Collins, Jr.’s reward seems to be the friendship of Adams and her family. I think the prospect of a one-armed romantic interest would have been a sensible and progressively step for the movie to take, but it uncharacteristically deviates from formula here.

Amputees aside, the film shares a lot of similarities with Little Miss Sunshine: eccentric old grandfather, cutesy outsider kid, dysfunctional family, a vehicle as focal to the characters’ journeys, and hell, even the word “sunshine” in the title. Still, Sunshine Cleaning has enough heart to stand alone as its own movie, and if the producers end up with a third movie addressing the same themes, I’d be fine with a “Sunshine Trilogy” - as long as the third film matches Sunshine Cleaning in quality.

Despite an apparent impression of unoriginality, Sunshine Cleaning is an effective character study with an excellent cast. It’s a bit formulaic, but grade-A performances and an optimistic tone make Sunshine Cleaning worth watching.

Final rating: 8/10

—James A. Janisse

Top Gun (1986)

I think it’s safe to say that nostalgia is the only reason Top Gun remains so revered. At least, I hope that’s the only reason, because Top Gun is a really bad movie.

Top Gun was the highest gross film in 1986, as well as the cannon that shot Tom Cruise into super stardom. Since I wasn’t around in ‘86 and I have the benefit of hindsight, I can’t fathom how people watched Cruise and didn’t think something was a little off. He has such a creepy intensity that oftentimes I just had to assume he was looking at Kelly McGillis intimately. If I’d judged it by his acting, I could only assume he was about to strangle her.

His character, the forever memorable Maverick, also seems to me like an unlikely character to root for, much less idolize. Maverick is absurdly arrogant and desperately defiant, risking his own and others’ lives repeatedly. The movie lets him off the hook by having tragedy come by way of accident instead of his actions, but that doesn’t change the fact that Maverick is, all things considered, a prick.

The characters remain static, never becoming more than “the goofy best friend”, “the hard-to-get love interest”, “the snarky rival”, and, of course, “the angry bald dude”. All of them spend the entirety of the film telling Maverick to chill the hell out. Maverick spends the entirety of the film telling them to fuck off.

Adding insult to injury is the soundtrack. I’m not a hater of 80s music by any means, but the guy in charge of Top Gun’s soundtrack seems content with getting two songs and repeating them ad nauseam. “Danger Zone” has never been anything more than a novelty, and the opening bars of “Take My Breath Away” are not some works of genius - neither needs to be heard as much as they are during Top Gun.

There are a few redeeming reasons to watching Top Gun. You’ll probably recognize a bunch of phrases that have become part of popular culture, and there are some amazing flight scenes. In fact, the action scenes in the air are so impressive that I would probably recommend the movie for those alone - the last act, which centers on Cruise’s first real assignment could stand alone as a great action short film. Had the movie focused even more on scenes with its characters kicking aerial ass and less on superfluous beach volleyball scenes, it might have gained more credibility as a classic 80s action film.

Instead, Top Gun is a Tom Cruise showboat, championing a character who you’d never want to work with in your life. The story is flat and superficial, and the acting is hammy, sometimes worse. As an impressive showcase of jet pilot action scenes, Top Gun works exceedingly well. As a movie, Top Gun is really bad.

Final rating: 4/10

—James A. Janisse