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Friday, April 22, 2011

Case 39


Title: Case 39

Year of Release: 2009

Date Viewed: February 12, 2011

MPAA Rating: R


If The Omen and Case 39 were siblings, Case 39 would be the younger less mature of the two that spends its life trying to ride the success of the older brother. The Stephen of the Baldwins. Or the Clint of the Howards. Or the Ted of the Raimis. You get the idea.

In this horror thriller, Renee Zellweger plays social worker Emily Jenkins. Emily has years of experience in improving the quality of life for children with troubled upbringings. Her latest case will be different than anything she had encountered before.

Ten year-old Lilith (Jodelle Ferland) is a seemingly normal girl with normal problems. Her case reaches Emily's desk under reports of a drastic dip in academic grades and suspicion of parental abuse. Emily investigates the family firsthand to find the parents exhibiting strange behavior in an almost zombie-like state. Shortly thereafter, she receives a phone call from Lilith herself pleading for someone to calm her panic. Fearing the worst, Emily and Detective Mike Barron (Ian McShane) rush back to the house just in time to save Lilith from being roasted alive inside the kitchen oven. The parents are arrested and sent to a mental institution while Lilith is now under the care of the state.

Lilith forms an emotional attachment to Emily and pleads to live with her instead of a foster family. Initially reluctant because of the possibility of work interference, Emily agrees at the cost of sacrificing personal involvement in Lilith's legal proceedings.

But the nightmare is only beginning. Various murders and suicides are happening to Emily's circle of colleagues. All of the cases involve a phone call initiated by Lilith and received by the victims. What sort of evil force could be responsible for these horrific events? Emily is determined to close this case for good even if it means breaking her legal binds and directly confronting Lilith for the truth.

If you've seen The Omen before, Emily's secret should be no surprise. This twist is practically spoonfed before the second act even gets rolling. The movie wastes away the offensive and manipulative oven scene through its own impatience, effectively (and ironically) cooking its own goose. Despite this, the film wrongly assumes that the audience should be on the edge of their seats. A big part of excitement from psychological thrillers like this is watching events unfold without the full knowledge of who is responsible for the deeds and how they are done. Case 39 has the laziest effort for guesswork I've seen from a movie in quite some time.

Renee Zellweger was a good choice for the lead role. As someone who has spent a fair share of time in front of real child guidance counselors, I found her warm persona and sensitive nature to be very believable. Jodelle Ferland deserves some credit too since the experience factor always presents a challenge for getting a memorable performance out of a child actor. It's too bad she was doomed from the start to be overshadowed by Isabelle Fuhrman's similar role in the slightly better Orphan.

I get the impression that someone in post-production must have realized that the movie didn't have a chance on succeeding with narrative alone. So we are treated to a thorough demonstration of what I like to call the "horror lever." When switched on, all the usual trademarks of dark thrillers are everywhere. The lighting is dim. The music is soft and low-key. The characters act somber and often nervous even if there is no reason to. This persists until the horror lever is switched off and normalcy returns. Case 39 leaves the switch turned on for the entire movie. It's never given a chance to reboot, regroup or even breathe. Artistic adrenalin can be too much of a good thing. Midway through the film, I was already exhausted. So much time had been spent guessing when the music would suddenly shriek or when the next wave of shadows would appear that there was no energy left to connect with characters. It's all an exercise in compensating for non-existent suspense. The payoff scenes don't fare much better. Some of the deaths are so unintentionally comical that they could have been ripped straight out of a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel.

Sometimes it's best just to keep the ships at port if the seas don't look promising. Or in this "case," leave it in the desk file.

Rating: 2

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Reservoir Dogs

Title: Reservoir Dogs

Year of Release: 1992

Date Viewed: February 4th, 2011

MPAA Rating: R

Some of my blog subscribers already know this, but I'd like to confess something to the rest of the world that will probably hurt my credibility. I am not a fan of Quentin Tarantino's work.

It's not that I have anything against the guy personally. In fact, we actually have a lot in common. Our youth was largely spent browsing through video rental shelves for obscure films before becoming the geekiest video store employees at our respective neighborhoods. We share many of the same tastes in entertainment, namely martial arts flicks, senseless violence and Three Stooges routines. Movies rule our lives and without them we would have no identity. Yet I have such a difficult time immersing myself into the work of an Academy Award winner who is practically a peer, seemingly for the same reasons that he is so beloved by his cult fanbase.

Like I stated before in the introductory post, my movie opinions often go against the grain, but I'm not ashamed of that. Independent critical thinking can sometimes get lost when surrounded by self-righteous know-it-alls. They're everywhere on and off the net. So my thoughts regarding Tarantino are not meant to be provocative. (I'm looking at you, Armond White.) Rather it's simply an exercise in brutal honesty. As the saying goes: It's better to be trusted than to be liked.

Tarantino has earned my respect for having a successful self-made career in ultra competitive Hollywood. I say this now because many future comments regarding his projects will be negative. And again, it's not because I'm out to get him. I'll continue to give him chances for as long as he's willing to make movies.

Now that we've got that out of the way, on to the review of his feature-length directorial debut: Reservoir Dogs.

Six strangers are recruited by a mob boss (Lawrence Tierney) to conduct a most meticulous heist at a diamond warehouse. The plan is set up perfectly, but the result is far from it. The loot is successfully stolen, but the police are hot on their trail. What was intended as a slick getaway has turned into a paranoid investigation for a possible traitor within their ranks. Or perhaps the boss had set them up from the beginning.

The group retreats to their warehouse rendezvous point to attempt rationalization and tend to their comrade Mister Orange (Tim Roth) who had been shot during the getaway. The name is color-themed just like all the others in this story. Alter-egos to cover real identities. The less personal information that could be shared between them, the less likely they are to grow close and compromise the mission. Uncovering the perpetrator (if he even exists) could be the robbers only chance of escaping prison or death.

I'll give Tarantino this. Sometimes he really knows how to set up a scene. And he may be one of the very best at depending on imagination for ultimate impact, strongly supported at the film's conclusion. He doesn't even bother to show the actual heist. All the drama unfolds in the aftermath within the gritty interior of the warehouse. The characters don't know what to make of the situation. And neither do we because we haven't witnessed it. Bringing this much anticipation into who will walk through the door and why takes brilliance. The most pivotal events occur within the filthy warehouse. With contention behind limited locations, Tarantino almost can claim to have reinvented the action genre. It feels fast-moving without actually going anywhere.

Everything else truly doesn't go anywhere. There are scenes outside of the warehouse, most of them designed to elaborate on characters. For whatever reason, these end up far less interesting. Whereas the warehouse events never stop pushing the plot forward; the background scenes stop it dead in its tracks. It's like two writers were trying to tell the same story and the scripts were pasted together without revisions. I guess I should have expected this. Tarantino is known to abruptly change tone whenever he feels like it. His inconsistency irritates me to no end. Take the opening scene for example. The characters are having breakfast together in a restaurant shortly before the big heist. After a rather random conversation, it concludes with a popular quoted speech by Mister Pink (Steve Buscemi) explaining his belief that servers shouldn't be tipped. Although amusing, the speech doesn't serve any later relevance nor does it help him stand out amongst his comrades. The robbers are all crazy enough to do anything that it makes neglecting dining customs small fry. Maybe Tarantino had a newspaper column he wanted to publish but couldn't find anywhere else to place it. I'm amazed at how half-convincing the speech was.

A few standout moments have helped Reservoir Dogs stay memorable. The friend that showed me this movie claims to have difficulty listening to Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle With You" without thinking of Mister Blonde's (Michael Madsen) sadistic torture. I will remember it simply for the great ideas that were brought to a very small table. Some story arcs were given a little too much attention while others were begging for more. I'm left undecided over whether the movie went too far or hadn't gone far enough.

Rating: 4