Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013)
★ / ★★★★
For years, Camp Half-Blood, a refuge for half-human, half-god children of Olympian deities, has been safe from outside forces due to a magical barrier surrounding its perimeter. But when a mechanical bull manages to break through, the demi-gods become in danger of extinction. Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), daughter of Athena, has an idea: if they obtain the Golden Fleece from the Sea of Monsters, it can be used to reestablish the camp’s defenses. Although Clarisse (Leven Rambin), daughter of Ares, is chosen to retrieve the fleece, Percy (Logan Lerman), son of Poseidon, and his friends decide to acquire it, too.
“Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters,” based on the screenplay by Marc Guggenheim and directed by Thor Freudenthal, is a sequel at its limpest, most predictable, and least entertaining—so frustratingly unimaginative despite special and visual effects present in just about every other scene. The story should have been more fun, daring, and intriguing given that it has ample sources of inspiration. We deserve better than this.
The material takes its time to take off—and for nothing. This is reflected in the amount of time the protagonists spend in the camp. A new character is introduced: Tyson (Douglas Smith), son of Poseidon and Percy’s half-brother. He also happens to be a cyclops. The screenplay does nothing to this potentially interesting character. We get to see that he has superhuman strength and fire does not hurt him.
However, the human element is lost. Because he is a cyclops, a select few hold a level of prejudice against him. None of it is explored in a meaningful way and so when those people who eventually come around and “learn” a lesson, they come off disingenuous. Furthermore, the relationship between the siblings is not given enough gravity. Percy, who should be the most interesting character of them all, is reduced to being reluctant to call Tyson “brother.” Really? Why not perhaps explore real emotions—like jealousy—since Percy feels that their father is closer to Tyson?
Action sequences seem very similar to one another. Oh, there’s trouble? Percy takes out his sword and swings it about. He loses grip on his weapon? Well, that’s what fists are for! Whatever happened to teamwork and creativity? Percy and his friends are supposedly on a journey together and yet we do not get a chance to feel their bond, how well they work together, and why each of them is a necessary piece to succeed on their mission.
The villain is as boring as a brick under the sun. Luke (Jake Abel), son of Hermes (Nathan Fillion—a breath of fresh air), does nothing interesting other than to look like a constipated Bond villain who tries too hard to look menacing. I did not believe for a second, at this stage in his rivalry with Percy, that he is a formidable enemy.
Based on Rick Riordan’s novel, “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters” need not have darker content or tone than its predecessor to be interesting, but it must increase the ante somehow or else it risks doing the same thing. In the end, I felt as though its universe did not at all progress despite the material laying groundwork for another sequel.
Texas Killing Fields (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mike Souder (Sam Worthington) and Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), homicide detectives, one local-based, the other from the city, respectively, are assigned to investigate kidnappings and murders of teen girls in rural Texas. Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain), a homicide detective from Texas City and Souder’s ex-wife, asks for their help because their murders seem to be related.
Inspired by a true story, “Texas Killing Fields,” written by Don Ferrarone and directed by Ami Canaan Mann, strips away all the glamour from what we expect of movies when it comes to the way cops track down serial killers. First, there is a lot of dirty work being portrayed like Stall having to slap around potential witnesses for the sake of information that might lead to the identity of the killer. Her officers look on like it is standard procedure. Heigh relies on someone from a telephone company to track down a cell phone signal without proper authorization. Meanwhile, Souder is unable to see beyond stereotypes which tinges his supposedly objective judgment.
Second, there is something visceral about the look and feel of the film. When a killer attacks and abducts his victim, it is shot sans fancy camera somersaults but every bit of horror is captured. By just allowing us to see what happens without music playing in the background, I felt that the events unfolding before our eyes can happen at any small town.
Lastly, the sense of place contributes to the increasing tension surrounding the mystery. A lot of people the detectives interact with are either poor white families or poor black families. Despite the racial difference, their deeply-rooted commonality is the belief that if they keep secrets from the cops, it is the great equalizer for being underrepresented and misrepresented. Yet the filmmakers find a way, subtle ways, to communicate that not all of the residents are bad or unwilling to cooperate. Sometimes they might be very bad but they are more than willing to go down to the police station for an interview.
However, I wished the film had given us more information about Souder, Heigh, and Stall. While each has a distinct personality and ways of accomplishing goals, I felt as though the material does not go deeply enough into what really makes them tick. A lot of time is dedicated to juvenile Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz), who lives with her drug-addicted mother (Sheryl Lee), brother (James Hébert), and mother’s boyfriend (Stephen Graham), getting into all sorts of trouble with the police. While Ann is an important character because she fits the description of the type of girl the killer tends to abduct, I was much more interested when the camera follows the detectives and we watch what they do to find answers.
For the most part, “Texas Killing Fields” sets a good example of how more crime movies should strive to be. It is able to deliver the necessary darkness in its story without having to result to showing us every bit violence that we become inured or desensitized.
Curse of Chucky (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Nica (Fiona Dourif) and her mother (Chantal Quesnelle) receive a package that neither of them ordered. Curious as to what it contains, they open the box and inside is a Good Guy doll. Perplexed, they conclude that the package is some sort of joke and so the doll goes in the trash. Later that night, a scream awakens Nica. She heads downstairs and discovers her mother’s bloody corpse. The doll is no longer in the trash.
Many people think that the story of Chucky the killer doll (voiced by Brad Dourif) has moved toward horror-comedy (and leaning toward the latter) over the years, but for someone who has a nightmare about the “Good Guy” doll just about every year—my mom allowed me to watch Tom Holland’s “Child’s Play” when I was six or seven—I approach every installment with slight unease. While the dark sense of humor and puns remain in the script, “Curse of Chucky,” written and directed by Don Mancini, is a welcome return to form in some ways. Like the original, it takes its time to build.
We do not see Chucky move his limbs or change his facial expression until just about halfway through. This leaves plenty of room for waiting which proves to have its strengths of weaknesses. Regarding the former, I enjoyed Nica as the lead protagonist. Paralyzed from the waist down, I felt increasingly worried for her the more she suspects that something is not quite right with the doll. She sees it sitting still one minute and the next time she checks up on it, it is gone. I wondered how she will be able to defend herself against Chucky when his past victims, who had full control of their bodies, had not fared so well. The material avoids portraying Nica as a wilting thing. It surprised me because there are times when I found that Nica and Chucky are just about evenly matched.
But the supporting characters not at all interesting. We never get the sense that they are smart or strong enough to hurt or seriously damage the doll in some way. Nica’s sister and family, who are there for their mother’s funeral, simply wait to be picked off. The background stories they are given—the unhappy wife (Danielle Bisutti), the suspicious husband (Brennan Elliott)—come off very superficial that the writer-director should not have bothered. I considered an alternative: the picture might have been stronger as a whole if Nica was the only person in the massive house for the entire duration while the suspense is embedded in her small but important discoveries about the strange package.
While some deaths are gruesome, disgusting, and enjoyable, I was not fully convinced when it comes to Chucky’s facial expressions. What made the doll so creepy in the original is that his expressions are limited—like a person is struggling to break out of that plastic body. Here, his face is given more range—to appear more human-like, I suppose—but, ironically, there is less to read. The angles of the doll’s face work under certain well-placed shadows, but when the mouth and eyebrows move I was reminded that I was watching CGI or a puppet being controlled rather than a criminal whose soul is stuck in that doll.
“Curse of Chucky” is most entertaining when bare. It is severely limited at times by doing too much: juggling too many characters, playing with heavy effects, and turning on the background music so profusely that one can usually predict when something will pop out or run across the screen. Still, more than a handful of scenes are good enough to compete against the peaks of its predecessors—even if it is a direct-to-DVD sequel.
(Fans of the series should stay for the hidden scene post-credits.)
Dirty Girl (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Danielle (Juno Temple) is known as the school tramp who cares about her grades as much as she cares about offending her peers. When she sarcastically asks about the pull-out method to her very old-fashioned sex ed teacher (Jonathan Slavin), off to the principal’s office she goes. Seeing that she is unrepentant, Principal Mulray (Gary Grubbs) puts her to a remedial class, a place for so-called misfits and social rejects, where she can, hopefully, learn a lesson in terms of reeling it in so people will cease to think of her as a streetwalker. Mrs. Hatcher (Deborah Theaker) pairs the blonde with Clarke (Jeremy Dozier), a gay teen with a bit of extra weight, to work on a project that involves a bag of flour named Joan.
Written and directed by Abe Sylvia, “Dirty Girl” is chuckle-inducing in parts but the story lacks cohesion. It starts off poking fun of high school stereotypes, becomes a road movie backed with great ‘80s tunes on the radio, and eventually goes on to deal with serious issues like parental neglect, physical abuse, and homophobia—all of which are touched upon just before the halfway point.
While I remained optimistic toward Sylvia’s enthusiasm in tackling his many—sometimes wild—ideas, the film needs to slow down, return to basics, and focus on some of the similarities between Danielle and Clarke before taking off on a road trip. It is clear that Clarke wants to escape from his homophobic parents (Dwight Yoakam, Mary Steenburgen) while Danielle wants to meet her biological father (Tim McGraw) in California. But what makes them such a formidable duo that we are able to root for them despite their worst disagreements? Because they come from terrible backgrounds? That is not good enough.
Danielle and Clarke hang out like most friends, typical as they come, but it takes a special kind of friendship for two people to decide to go on a road trip when the stakes are very high. If the trip goes nowhere, it means Clarke is either going to remain seeing a doctor so he can be “cured” of his homosexuality or, to his father’s insistence, he is going to be shipped off to military school in order to be “straightened” out. For Danielle, she will either end up in the streets or become a Mormon because her mother, Sue Ann (Milla Jovovich), hopes to marry Ray (William H. Macy), who very much lives and breathes Mormonism.
The film’s approach to make us laugh is forced and it comes with a price. Scenes of characters dancing salaciously do not take the film very far. In fact, it is cheapened. When something amusing happens, it is almost always coupled with some sad revelation or event. The script fails to provide a natural path from one extreme emotion to another, so when tears well up in the characters’ eyes and their voices begin to shake, the emotions being portrayed feel disingenuous. I felt the material almost begging me to care even if it has yet to provide a good reason for us to invest a little more.
Most of the images speak for themselves but, for example, I wanted Clarke to express what he thinks when his dad’s fists decide to do the talking. And why not allow the father to speak to his son about his frustration, resentment, and feelings of inadequacies for ending up with a gay son? Let him sound like a bigot. Let us hate what he stood for. That way, at least we have an idea where he is coming from. That is much more interesting than just watching someone perform redundant—and unsexy—stripper poses.
★★ / ★★★★
The Dovers and the Birchs hold a little get-together over Thanksgiving, but what should have been a peaceful and enjoyable holiday turns into a nightmare when the two young girls from each family go missing. The prime suspect is a teenager named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who is later discovered to have an IQ of a ten-year-old, because the girls are seen climbing on his RV a few hours prior to their disappearance. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) interviews the suspect but since no viable information can be extracted out of him, he is released after two days. This does not sit well with Keller (Hugh Jackman). He is convinced that Alex is involved somehow and if the police are unable to do their job, he is more than happy to take action.
“Prisoners,” written by Aaron Guzikowski and directed by Denis Villeneuve, has the right texture and atmosphere to tell a grim dramatic thriller, but it is bogged down by an overlong running time—clocking in at around two hours and thirty minutes—and it has very few reasons to do so. Instead of being a lean and mean piece of work, we are made to sit through repetitive scenes involving torture. As a result, the middle part is sags and drags. It might have been more effective if there was an extended torture scene that took place in one room and allowed us to absorb the horror of watching someone get beaten until he was black and blue, broken bones and all—at once.
Some might argue that one hundred and fifty minutes is justified to tell the story because it allows us to feel the exhaustion and frustration of the characters. I am not convinced. If this were a more efficient picture with smarts and gusto, it would have found alternative avenues to communicate the psychological breakdown of its main players sans jumping back and forth to Keller forcing Alex to give up information that he may or may not have.
For example, I would not have minded if the material if had spent more time exploring the other parents’ states of mind. The matriarchs (Viola Davis, Maria Bello) are underused. Davis is given more to do by allowing Nancy to react to certain discoveries, but Bello’s character, Grace, does nothing but cry. Franklin (Terrence Howard), Nancy’s husband, would have been a great supporting foil for Keller but his role is greatly diminished about halfway through. I felt the screenplay struggling to juggle its characters—all deserving of complexity and attention given its fascinating subject matter.
Although Jackman has the more ostentatious role as an increasingly angry father (and he is very good at it), it is Gyllenhaal that shines in my eyes. I enjoyed watching the little ticks the actor has chosen to incorporate to his performance. Detective Loki looks very tired, almost unhappy, but I believed it when he is said to have solved every case he has ever been assigned. The man may take a while to connect the dots but he is very determined and willing to look into all logical possibilities of the case. Because Keller and Loki have opposite temperaments, their consistent clashing is interesting and I wondered to what degree their relationship will change over the course of the film.
We get many remakes of foreign films these days—a significant percentage of them not very impressive. However, I am most interested to see how this story can be interpreted by a French, German, Iranian, or Japanese cast and director. I want to see an interpretation that is less in-your-face and more contemplative. Here, the majority of the emotions are handled with an exclamation point. Subtlety is not the picture’s strength despite a memorable final shot.
★ / ★★★★
Spider (Ralph Fiennes) is recently released from a mental institution and has been assigned to live in a transitional residential facility manned by Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave) to determine if he, in fact, is cured. When not interacting with the residents, he spends his time unintelligibly writing on a journal, followed by flashbacks of Spider as a boy (Bradley Hall). He loves his mother (Miranda Richardson) but he is convinced that every time his father (Gabriel Byrne) visits a pub for some drinks, he is actually having an affair. But why Spider is committed to a mental hospital?
“Spider,” based on a novel by Patrick McGrath, comes off too controlled and calculated, every step a contrivance, so rarely do we get a chance to truly connect to the disturbed main character. Though Spider is a curiosity some of the time, the heavy-handed images, like the attempt to complete a jigsaw puzzle which is supposed to reflect his broken memories, neither ring true nor add weight to the material.
There are too many symbolic images designed to convince us that there is still something wrong with him. They are unnecessary. We can easily see for ourselves just by looking at Spider’s appearance, like his neglect for hygiene, talking to himself when no one is around, and the tremors, that he should not yet have been released. It was as if the screenwriters had seen too many uninspired thrillers and made a checklist of what makes someone with mental problems so scary. Instead of narrowing down what feels right for their story, everything is thrown at the wall.
The material might been more effective if the filmmakers refrained from judging the lead character so consistently that we end up being forced to think a certain way. Why not allow us to think for ourselves and weigh what is possibly happening? Back in the day, people with abnormal psychology were not fully understood so they were treated with animosity and violence. I wished the filmmakers have attempted to find a way, without being heavy-handed, to convey that message. Turning someone into a villain is easy; creating a figure worthy of our sympathy and interest requires a bit of insight and effort.
Moreover, the flashback scenes are not as effectively executed. A handful of details are messy, confusing, and frustrating. For example, how can adult Spider have images of what his father did with a local prostitute if young Spider was not in the same room with them at the time? With this example, among others, the lack of logic is astounding.
Directed by David Cronenberg, “Spider,” despite its many ideas, a few of them quite smart, feels too thin and drawn out. The unexplained holes make it seem like the ending depends on a coin flip, usually a sign of a weak picture, instead of a defined inevitable conclusion. At one point I wondered if the film would have been stronger if the ending had been shown in the first scene so we know what signs to look for that lead up to it. In any case, it is still a complete mess.
Last Exorcism Part II, The (2013)
★ / ★★★★
Nell (Ashley Bell) is sent to live in a home for girls after she is found with only fragments of memories involving what had happened to her while living in the woods. There is one thing she knows for certain: her entire family had perished in a fire. At first, her integration goes well. She gets along with her roommate, Gwen (Julia Garner), and has made friends with all of the girls in the house. Also, there is a nice boy around her age, Chris (Spencer Treat Clark), who seems to show genuine interest. But the demon that possessed Nell in the woods is not finished with her. Its plans have evolved and it is desperate to get her back.
“The Last Exorcism Part II,” based on the screenplay by Damien Chazelle and Ed Gass-Donnelly, feels like a rehash of a rehash. While it does offer a few hair-raising scenes, there is a lack of control in many of its attempts to scare and so the majority of them end up silly or laughable. For instance, must Nell make sexual sounds while being possessed as she sleeps? Is she supposed to be liking it? I don’t know, but it made me feel awkward. A lot of people tend to make jokes about the title. The truth is, the joke is on those, like myself, who has taken the time to sit through the picture and hoped that it would get better. It did not.
The first third is tolerable. I enjoyed the way it is communicated that Nell has lived such a sheltered life. Bell does a good job in underlining the fragility of Nell. Like a child plucked out of the darkness, a lot of things, like rock music, are new to her. Though she cannot remember the graphic details of her past, I rooted for the character because I did not want to see her get hurt. She deserves a new beginning.
There are warm moments between the girls, particularly during Mardi Gras and while at work, but getting to know some of them might have elevated the picture. As a movie that relies on formulas, we know that it is only a matter of time until they figure out Nell’s bizarre history. The betrayal that she feels would have packed more wallop if we had known the girls as much as we know Nell. Instead, during that important scene, the girls end up looking like bullies when, in reality, it is likely that they have troubled pasts, too.
Its ailment is having no ambition: it lacks solid scares because of its reliance on tired techniques. For example, when the camera moves down a hallway, it slithers so slowly that it is obvious that it wants us to wonder what is right around the corner. When the supposed jolts do arrive, the loud music does all the work.
When all is silent, cue the CGI and–can you believe it–more loud music. This is especially problematic in the second half. Horror is at its most effective when simple. Instead, we watch black vein-like figures on the wall (why is that scary?) and various moving shapes underneath a woman’s stomach (it comes across as an act of desperation than being genuinely creepy). The lack of context in these would-be scare attempts is astonishing.
I went into “The Last Exorcism Part II,” directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly, willing and ready to be scared. One is more susceptible to be played like a marionette or a piano when one is willing and ready. But the picture barely lifts a finger. Instead, the sheer laziness of the writers and director ends up being on screen for the world to see. If I were them, I would be really embarrassed.
Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Though she has triumphed over the 74th Hunger Games, an annual ritual in which a male and a female are randomly chosen to represent their district of residence and fight against other Tributes—as well as one another—to the death, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself in a post-traumatic dirge, seeing faces and hearing voices of those who did not survive. Meanwhile, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has begun to worry about a possible uprising because Katniss has inadvertently become a symbol of hope—toxic to the totalitarian regime.
The point of the yearly custom is to instill fear among the twelve districts but since Katniss’ victory, more are willing to step forward and express their disdain for the status quo. Snow wishes to eliminate Katniss as soon as possible, but a new gamemaker (Philip Seymour Hoffman) explains that if she is killed, people will surely overthrow the government. Instead, he proposes that Katniss, along with her friend and co-winner, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), be pitted against past—and deadly—winners for the 75th Hunger Games.
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is a strong sequel because the main goal of Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt’s screenplay is to expand its dystopian universe while the thrilling action sequences are allowed to fall into place. Upon closer inspection, this approach shares the same genome as superior second chapters, from Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” to Bryan Singer’s “X2.” Though we are familiar with the central characters, there is a freshness in what we come to experience because there is a consistent and defined point of view. Through Katniss’ anger, guilt, and fear, we learn to appreciate not only who she is as a protagonist but also the type of world she lives in. The filmmakers make an active decision not to simply rely on the good-guy-versus-bad-guy template and assume that just because someone “good” is up against a “big bad” does not mean he or she is worthy of our time. They work for it. Those in charge of the material are willing to go into specifics and so the final product is transportive.
Lawrence has so much range and she is the reason why Katniss is worth knowing—lightyears more interesting than the likes of Bella Swan or Melanie Stryder. For instance, part of the essence of the picture is the characters’ relationship with the media. Katniss and Peeta must pretend to be a couple when the districts and the all-seeing Capitol are watching. Katniss is instructed to smile, be happy, and act in love. Lawrence makes interesting choices on how to present Katniss during interviews. While we see the character following instructions she has been given, there are split-second moments—subtle body movements—when Lawrence allows Katniss to appear uncomfortable and communicate how much she hates participating in the charade. In other words, the actor is completely pulling the strings while her character attempts to put on a show. There is a difference and it is a challenge to accomplish with grace.
It is most interesting that the picture spends well over an hour to expand the circumstances and build what is at stake. When we get to the tournament—which, admittedly, I looked most forward to—it is almost less engaging compared to the machinations and politics in Panem. I found this appropriate. Because the first half gives us a chance to appreciate the film’s universe, the game itself has gone stale, almost shallow. What I wanted to see more is the growing rebellion. President Snow expresses great concern—building up to silent panic—about the government being overthrown but we are not yet provided distinct factions to allow the threat to be personified. The next chapter should prove most fruitful.
I do not mean to suggest that the challenges that the Tributes face in the strange tropical island are not exciting. On the contrary, it offers some moments of real suspense. For instance, it features the most menacing white cloud of terror since Frank Darabont’s “The Mist.” I also enjoyed being suspicious of Katniss and Peeta’s competitors. I never trusted any of them (Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Sam Claflin, Lynn Cohen, Alan Ritchson, Jena Malone)—even if a few have proven several times that they are allies. I caught myself looking for the smallest hints—to anticipate the acts of betrayal. A good movie dares to keep you on your toes. I knew then that I was engaged.
Based on Suzanne Collins’ novel, “Catching Fire,” directed by Francis Lawrence, is great entertainment because it cares about details not only when it comes to what is seen on screen but also what is felt by the characters and how we feel toward them. Notice the significant contrast between Katniss’ drab grayish-blue world—one that she covets nonetheless because of her family and community—and the pavonine, lush celebrations in the Capitol—a world that does not earn an iota of her respect due to what it represents.