Cinema Psycho

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Archive for February, 2006

Eavesdropper (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on February 24, 2006

Directed and written by Andrew Bakalar/starring Lucy Jenner, Costas Mandylor, John De Lancie, John J. York, George Takei. Tucker Smallwood/Freestyle Home Entertainment

A deaf woman undergoes an experimental treatment to restore her hearing, and discovers she can read other people’s thoughts.

There are times when you really wish you could find something nice to say about a movie. This is one of those times.

I didn’t really know anything about this movie when I agreed to accept a screener for it. The description sounded really cool though, so I thought it might be worth a shot. They made it sound like this weird little underground conspiracy film based on a true story, when the actual movie really isn’t anything like that at all. It plays more like a rejected pilot for the Sci-Fi Channel. In fact it has recently aired on Lifetime under its original title, Patient 14. That should probably tell you something.

It’s kind of a shame that the movie’s so lame, because writer/director Bakalar seems to have his heart in the right place. If the information on his commentary and the behind-the-scenes doc is accurate, he essentially raised the money himself, managed to get well-known actors to appear in it and struggled to get it released. In other words, this is a true independent film. If only good intentions and hard work were enough.

The strangely convoluted plot centers on Liza (Jenner), a woman who undergoes a traumatic experience when her boyfriend/husband (wasn’t sure which) is shot by a mugger and the gunshot is so close to her ears that it renders her deaf. This happens before the opening credits, which is followed by a montage in which Liza is forcibly evicted from her home (what, deaf people don’t work?) and winds up sleeping in a car. Why she didn’t, say, go immediately to the police station after the shooting is unclear. She’s eventually found by a social worker (York) who brings her to a shelter and naturally falls in love with her, because that’s what happens in the movies.

Then she gets the opportunity to receive an experimental operation designed to restore her hearing. Of course she jumps on it, unaware that there have been other patients who have gone insane and/or committed suicide after the treatment. Liza is able to hear the thoughts of everyone she comes in contact with, but unlike the other patients she manages to keep her mental state intact. This naturally raises the interest of the government, who are secretly behind the operations and want to use her as a spy. She’s pursued by a rather unpleasant agent (Mandylor) who puts her to work protecting the interests of the country, then of course she has to find a way to get away from him and escape the government’s clutches, because that’s what happens in the movies.

The problem is, Bakalar never makes us care about any of this. The plot is initially interesting (if not particularly believable) when dealing with Liza’s condition and the results of the secret operation. But then the movie has to introduce all this tired, clichéd stuff about the government conspiracy, the big bad agent forcing her to do a job she doesn’t want to do, and then Liza going on the run, and it all plays like an uninspired TV-movie. Any energy the movie generated gets drained as it painfully goes through the motions of its typical middle-of-the-road thriller storyline. I honestly felt like I’d seen the second half of this about 75 million times. What starts out as a potentially cool little sci-fi flick becomes the kind of movie that should star the likes of Tori Spelling. Zzzzz….

Nor does it help matters that Eavesdropper contains all the visual panache of a below-average Diagnosis Murder episode. Every frame has that flat, pedestrian look that seems designed to keep old people from having seizures. I don’t know if this was intentional or if that’s simply the best they could do with the budget they had, but either way it makes for unexciting viewing. To be fair, the image quality is never amateurish or unprofessional, unlike many low-budget genre pictures. But mere competence just isn’t enough to keep the viewer from nodding off. If Bakalar had even tried to do anything interesting visually here, it might have made the film at least enjoyable to watch. Instead, it’s a chore to sit through, especially when combined with the ridiculous and dull plot.

The acting is generally decent enough for this sort of enterprise, with the glaring exception of B-movie mannequin Mandylor, whose tiresome performance as the main villain makes one long for the subtlety and nuance of Richard Grieco. Mandylor is one of those guys who just never seems to register any sort of charisma on film, no matter how undemanding the role might be, and he’s downright unwatchable here. His character might as well be named “Generic Bad Guy”. York, who’s apparently a well-known soap star, doesn’t fare much better as the saintly social worker whose one discriminating feature is his history of having sex with his patients. You never get the feeling that he falls in love with Liza for any particular reason other than…well, she’s there. And that’s what characters like this are supposed to do in movies like this. Star Trek fans might get a brief kick out of seeing “Sulu” (Takei) and “Q” (de Lancie) appear together as the misguided doctors who give Liza her operation, but they’re merely functional in their roles, If you rent this movie just to see them, might I suggest professional help?

The standout is virtual unknown Jenner (whom the back cover credits as having been in Casino, though her IMDb page does not), who manages to deliver a solid performance as the ever-suffering Liza. This despite having virtually no character background to work with – we learn very little about Liza’s life before the shooting, so we never have a real sense of what she’s lost other than what we see in Jenner’s eyes. There really isn’t much to the character as written, but she projects an intelligence and groundedness that keeps the movie watchable for awhile, even when the plot really hasn’t earned our interest. She’s attractive in a very real, relatable way, and I hope to see her in better films.

It’s a shame that Eavesdropper resorts to such clichéd storytelling, because the basic premise could have made for a fascinating film. That is, if they had stuck to it and not felt the need to bring in the hoary old government-conspiracy plot elements. The idea of a person being able to hear others’ thoughts has potential, so why not explore its possibilities rather than exploit it for unrealistic story points? I actually think it would be kind of cool myself (at the very least, it would take the guesswork out of dating). Why does it drive the other patients insane and not Liza? How would it affect her interactions with other people? Would she possibly be able to use it to get her old life back? Those are the kind of issues that make an interesting story, yet Bakalar seems completely uninterested in pursuing them. It’s as if he thought he couldn’t sell the film on its premise, so he just used it as a launching point for a standard chase movie. The question he seems to have failed to ask is, why should the audience care?

The film’s publicity claims that the film is “Based on Shocking True Events”, yet there’s no evidence or explanation of such events in the disc’s extras, just Bakalar’s statement that a true story inspired him. I seriously doubt that any true story could be so uninspired, but I would have much preferred to see a film about the real case, if such a case exists. If he stumbled onto a fascinating real story, why go through all the trouble to make a movie that avoids any sense of reality whatsoever? While I admire the effort that went into it, I can’t help but wonder what the point was. It’s not enough just to have good intentions – it’s necessary to have a story worth telling. Eavesdropper doesn’t, sadly.

*1/2 2/24/06

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A Love Letter to Hollywood, Straight from the Heart; or, the Probable Worst of 2006

Posted by CinemaPsycho on February 16, 2006

I rarely make New Year’s Resolutions, because it’s a ridiculous tradition and no one ever sticks to them. But there’s one resolution I decided to follow through on this year: giving up watching TV “entertainment news” shows. You know, those half-hour or even hour-long programs that are supposedly there to provide us with news and information about the entertainment industry. Entertainment Tonight, E! News Daily, Showbiz Tonight, The Insider, etc. I’m abandoning the lot of them, and I intend to stick to it.

I already know what most of you are thinking: “what the bloody hell took you so long?” I know, I know. There’s absolutely no reason not to have checked out on these crappy shows long ago. It’s not like I never realized before how lame and uninformative they actually are. I came to the conclusion some time ago that these shows actually should be called Celebrity Tonight, and that the E! channel would be more appropriately named C! (except for their Coming Attractions trailer show, which is the only thing I watch on that network now that Howard Stern has left).

But it used to be, not so long ago, that one could watch these shows and actually get some information about what’s going on in the entertainment industry. Not a lot, but some. Before the Internet came along, ET and E! were my main sources of information on the latest movies and TV shows. That’s really hard to believe now, but it’s true. Sure, I used to read movie magazines like Premiere and Movieline on a regular basis, but those only came out once a month. Then when Entertainment Weekly came along, that magazine provided a weekly fix of pop-culture info for quite some time. But reading a magazine once a week or month is nothing like being able to check in on the latest news every day, right? That’s where the good old TV set came in.

Unfortunately, these shows have become the televised equivalent of reading a supermarket tabloid, and they’re about as intellectually stimulating. An average episode is literally (I’m not exaggerating here) 99% celebrity gossip and 1% puff-piece filler. It’s a rare treat to see the premiere of a trailer (which is usually accompanied by annoying voice-over from one of the hosts) or an actual behind-the-scenes piece on a new film or show that actually tells you anything substantial. Meanwhile, you can easily go online to any number of movie-news sites and get tons of information about films in production, interviews with directors and screenwriters (you know, the people that actually make the movies), download trailers, read reviews (ahem), and just generally find out what’s going on in the industry. You can even pick and choose which stories you’re interested in reading, rather than rely on the likes of Mary Hart to decide for you what’s important. Say what you will about Harry Knowles and the rest of the online movie-news community, they get that it’s what’s on the screen that matters. The rest is bullshit.

So I’ve finally decided to give up, once and for all, on those lousy entertainment-news programs. Because I just don’t care about Paris “amateur porn star” Hilton or Jessica Simpleton or who’s fucking who, who’s divorcing who, who’s cheating on who. I really don’t give a good goddamn about reality TV shows, Dr. Phil (redneck idiot), Oprah (the world’s biggest cult leader) or 800-pound people who can’t get out of their houses. And I have yet to understand what the Kennedys, the Bush twins or Chelsea Clinton have to do with the entertainment industry. Not to mention the fact that the movies and shows and musical artists I actually care about are rarely covered (if at all) on those shows, which just makes them more and more frustrating to watch. Honestly, if I have to watch that vapid skank Guiliana DePandi do one more piece on “celebrity fashion” and how you too can wear the same dress that Eva Longoria wore at the Grammys…I might just find the nearest empty cave and live on tree bark for the rest of my days.

Now, if you’ve got some Veronica Mars news, or word on the new Scorsese film (like a release date) or inside info on Bob Dylan recording a new album, let’s hear it. Otherwise, do us all a favor and shut the fuck up. Pretty please. Believe it or not, some of us don’t “live for this stuff”. And I for one have had more than enough.

Unless they bring back Jules Asner. Then I’m tuning in every day.

Seriously though, I don’t mean to be negative or anything. God forbid. I actually look at my site as a way to celebrate the things that I love (or at least like) about the movie industry. Unlike some critics, I don’t really relish writing bad reviews. Watching a bad movie is such a dismal experience, and I don’t enjoy sharing that with others, except maybe as a warning. But when I see a movie that I love, I can’t wait to write about it and encourage others to see that film too. That’s really the only reason to do this, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not about anonymously attacking people – I respect anyone who can actually get a movie made. That doesn’t mean I have to like the movie.

Having said that, I like to avoid the obvious stinkers, as any sensible person would. The truth is, there are so many movies in any given year that I look forward to, that a list of those movies would take forever to write and to read. So I think it’s more interesting to make a list of movies I don’t want to see, as sort of a guide of what to avoid, as well as a kind of bizarre view into my own tastes and psyche. This will be my second annual list of this kind, and I think it’s worth noting that much of last year’s batch wound up on a lot of people’s Worst lists at the end of the year. So take it for whatever you will. Trust me, if I have any interest whatsoever in seeing a movie, it won’t be on this list. And I won’t include movies that have already come out, such as Big Momma’s House 2, Last Holiday, BloodRayne, Grandma’s Boy and Annapolis, none of which I would touch with a ten-foot pole.

Plus, given that I’m writing this on February 14th, what better day to “go negative” than a holiday devoted to emotional blackmail and making single people feel like crap?

OK, and away we go…

Eight Below – Paul “Tree Stump” Walker, Jason Biggs and a bunch of dogs? No thanks. The last thing anyone in the “flyover states” wants to see in the dead of winter is a movie set in Antarctica. Nice timing, Disney.

Date Movie – respect to Alyson “Trina Echolls” Hannigan, but this looks like proof once and for all that parody is dead. I used to be a sucker for spoofs, but the well is seriously dry. While I like the idea of making fun of romantic comedies (god knows they deserve it), nothing I’ve seen in the trailers and ads have even made me crack a smile. How can you make fun of movies like Meet the Fockers, which weren’t meant to be serious in the first place? You can’t make a comedy that makes fun of comedies, and expect it to be any funnier than the original source material. Lame is lame to the nth degree.

Madea’s Family Reunion – not even wild horses and a date with Kristen Bell could drag me to see this. Black men in fat old lady drag is desperate and tiresome. Why aren’t there any fat old lady actresses protesting this stuff? These guys are taking your jobs away!

The Shaggy Dog – speaking of desperate and tiresome, here’s the new Tim Allen comedy. The latest remake of a Disney kiddie movie that even 8-year-olds thought was stupid the first time around. If your kids’ classmates enjoy this movie, you should consider home-schooling your children. Robert Downey Jr. is in this – must have been a condition of his parole.

Failure to Launch – OK, a 35-year-old guy still lives with his parents and likes it? I’m already not buying this scenario. Casting noted thespian Terry Bradshaw as his father isn’t exactly sweetening the pot for me. It wouldn’t have taken Sarah Jessica Parker to get me out of the house – I’d have moved out for Amy Linker. (obscure Square Pegs joke from hopelessly old writer)

Aquamarine – looks like Splash for preteen girls who think Laguna Beach is, like, all deep and stuff. A young mermaid comes to dry land to pursue a romance with a teenager who’s in for a shock when he finally sees her bottom half. Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “smells like fish”! Come on, that’s gotta be funnier than the actual movie! Co-star Emma Roberts is Julia’s niece, for all you fans of nepotism out there.

Phat Girlz – no, I don’t have anything against fat people. I do have something against awful, clichéd comedies and people who can’t spell. Thanks for asking.

The Benchwarmers – I’m apparently the last person left who actually thinks David Spade is funny, and even I don’t want to see him team up with Rob Schneider and Napoleon Dynamite for this alleged comedy in which three athletically challenged adults take on a team of little kids. Where are the original Bad News Bears when you really need them? Tatum O’Neal could kick all their asses. Seriously, if you’re a fully-grown adult and you need sports to boost your self-esteem, you need professional help.

Take the Lead – Antonio Banderas plays an inner-city teacher who changes his students’ lives with the power of dance. Too sexy! And too clichéd. Is it Dangerous Moves, or Dance and Deliver? If he really wanted to change their lives, he’d get them the hell out of the inner city.

Scary Movie 4 – is there anything left to parody at this point? Oh yeah, they’ll just take shots at all the movies released since the last one came out. But they won’t actually have anything interesting to say about those movies, they’ll just trot them out as references to string together a façade of a plot. If it’s anything like 3, expect about 600 jokes in about 88 minutes, and maybe 2 or 3 will actually be funny. Plus it’s PG-13, so it won’t have the outrageousness of the first two. David Zucker, you should be ashamed for pimping out the style of humor you helped create to the anything-for-a-buck Weinsteins.

Stick It – a movie about a teenage girls’ gymnastics team, from the writer of Bring It On. Why am I not enthusiastic? Because I already see this in my dreams every night, except the girls in the movie will have clothes on.

See No Evil – a horror movie starring a wrestler and produced by the WWE. I’ll bet the audience will be more frightening than anything on the screen.

Little Man – the latest comedy from the Wayans Brothers. I think it’s something about a midget and a trampoline. Well, it wouldn’t surprise me.

The Fast and the Furious 3 – no Paul Walker? No Vin Diesel? Well, I wouldn’t go see it even if they were in it. Actually, the only way I’d see this movie is if it featured Elisha Cuthbert naked. Not gonna happen? Well, I told you my conditions. It’s not my fault if they don’t deliver.

Garfield 2 – ugh. After watching the first one on cable, I immediately deemed it “Bill Murray Makes a House Payment”. The further adventures of an orange CGI blob that only vaguely resembles a cat. Christ, if even Bill Murray’s voice can’t make an animal funny, it should be put out of its misery. And ours. No one over the age of 9 should see this movie. Ever.

Flicka – a remake of a classic family film about a preteen girl and a horse. If you know anything about preteen girls and horses, you know this should be NC-17. At least.

Swap Meet – not unless it’s a porno movie. And maybe not even then.

The Covenant – Renny “Crazy Hack from Finland” Harlin takes another shot at horror after the dismal, unwatchable Exorcist: The Beginning. That’s all I need to know. Maybe they’ll fire him and let Paul Schrader reshoot the entire movie. Fingers crossed…

Gridiron Gang – something about The Rock, prison and football. Somehow that combination is almost as spectacularly unappealing as the combination of Sandler, prison and football was to me last year.

Jackass 2 – apparently some people like to watch idiots torture themselves on screen for their own amusement. I’d rather scratch my balls with a cheese grater than watch this junk. But let’s not give them any ideas for the movie.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre Prequel – you know, I’ll probably wind up seeing this thing anyway out of sheer curiosity, much like the remake this is a prequel to. And much like the remake, I’ll be shaking my head and wondering why I bothered when I walk out. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice… does anyone really care about Leatherface’s origins? He’s a mongoloid with a chainsaw, not Hannibal Lecter. “But how did he become a mongoloid with a chainsaw?” isn’t exactly a burning question on my mind. I hate that Hollywood now thinks that everything in horror movies has to be explained. Some things, we’re better off not knowing.

The Santa Clause 3 – I’ve never seen the first two, and I’ll continue that proud holiday tradition with this one as well. I’d honestly rather watch A Christmas Story about 500 more times. Still no sequel to Galaxy Quest, Tim? Come on, you don’t seem to have anything better to do.

Dallas – another old TV show gets the big-screen treatment. If the movie sucks, can we pretend it was all a dream? Rumor has it that John Travolta will play J.R. Ewing – because nothing’s more authentic than a Texas oilman with a Brooklyn accent. I never watched Dallas at all when it was on, and somehow I don’t think I’ll be missing much if I skip the movie version too. I bet they’ll throw NASCAR in there somewhere.

Dungeon Siege – the only thing worse than an Uwe Boll movie is a three-hour Uwe Boll movie or a two-part Uwe Boll movie. Apparently he hasn’t decided which way to go, but either way it’s a guaranteed tax write-off for some poor studio. Ray Liotta, Jason Statham, Burt Reynolds – how does he get these casts for his horribly shitty productions? I think some German businessmen must have seen The Producers and then looked at Uwe Boll and thought, “this guy’s terrible! We can make a ton of money off of him!” Edward D. Wood Jr. must be rolling in his grave.

Evan Almighty – I like Steve Carrell just fine, but if this movie is even half as insufferable and preachy as Bruce Almighty, I’m going to have to pass. If I wanted a sermon, I’d get up early on Sunday morning.

Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector – is he the one that says “Git ‘er Done”? Because that guy needs a bullet or a brain transplant. I couldn’t stand watching that hick for 5 seconds, much less 90 minutes. Maybe they’ll schedule the annual Klan rally around this movie’s (sure to be brief) release.

And, last but quite possibly least:

Open Season – the combined vocal talents of Martin Lawrence and Ashton Kutcher make this a cartoon that people of all religions can be angry about.

So that about covers it. Of course, release schedules change on a whim, so some of these may be pushed back to next year or even (let’s hope) go straight to DVD. Hope you had fun reading this; I certainly had fun writing it (more fun than any of these movies will be to watch, I’m sure). I’ll be back soon with more reviews, hopefully of good movies!

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When A Stranger Calls

Posted by CinemaPsycho on February 8, 2006

Directed by Simon West/written by Jake Wade Wall, based on the film written by Steve Feke and Fred Walton/starring Camilla Belle, Katie Cassidy, Tessa Thompson, Brian Geraghty, Lance Henriksen (voice)/Screen Gems

A babysitter is terrorized by a prank-calling serial killer with the voice of a veteran character actor.

OK, I’ve never actually seen the original 1979 When a Stranger Calls, though I know it by reputation. It’s one of those movies that freaked people out when I was a kid, and I wasn’t allowed to watch it. Now, of course, I’d probably find it pretty tame. Ironically, I recall it was my babysitter at the time who told me about it, and its legendary line “the call is coming from inside the house!” Babysitters used to love to freak little kids out, which was the one thing The Amityville Horror remake got right. But I digress.

From what I hear, though, the movie itself really isn’t that great and doesn’t hold up well now. Which is what apparently makes it prime for a remake. I have a feeling that in 25 years today’s adolescents will look back on the remake and have the same reaction that the kids of the late ‘70’s have to the original now. Which is, “we actually found this scary back then? What the hell were we thinking?”

Not that the new version of When a Stranger Calls is a horribly bad film. I almost wish it was, because that would make this review a lot easier to write. Another horror remake, lack of original ideas, Hollywood raping its past for easy profit, blah blah blah. But the truth is, I almost really liked this movie. Almost. There’s just enough there that’s worthwhile that I can’t entirely dismiss it as crap. Partially, but not entirely.

The plot is simple enough, so simple that I was waiting for some kind of twist to come up in the third act and surprise everybody, but that didn’t happen. It’s the story of one Jill Johnson (the unbelievably attractive Belle), a small-town high-school girl who’s been grounded by her parents for – gasp – running up a big cell-phone bill. These kids today, who knows what they’re capable of! Rather than actually making her get a job and pay the damn thing off herself, Jill’s parents decide to punish her by making her babysit on the night of “the big bonfire”, an annual get-together for the popular kids. This apparently involves the kids hanging around a big fire at a place where cell phones are conveniently inconsistent. This is what passes for fun in Oregon.

Anyway, Jill’s assignment initially seems like a cakewalk. The kids are already in bed when she gets there, she has full access to the fridge (sweet) and, except for the maid, there’s nobody around for miles to bug her when she’s studying. Except, of course, for some guy who keeps calling the house and breathing heavily at her. Initially she dismisses this as mere prank calling, but Jill gets more and more freaked out and the situation gradually escalates.

Here’s the thing – you can’t possibly look at a movie like this in the cold light of logic and realism. If you even try, the whole thing falls apart completely. Very little of When a Stranger Calls actually makes any sense whatsoever, and you honestly can’t expect it to. There are tons of questions brought up by the very premise and its introductory exposition. If the maid was going to be there the whole time, why couldn’t she watch the kids for the couple of hours that the parents were going to be gone? There’s some lip service given to “she leaves in the evenings” but then she never does. Why don’t the kids ever get out of bed, for a glass of water or to use the bathroom or something? These are some incredibly well-behaved little kids. How did Jill’s apparently middle-class parents even know the rich doctor and his younger wife needed a babysitter at the last minute? If Jill is grounded because she’s supposedly irresponsible, why do her parents immediately put her in a position of responsibility? They don’t trust her to use a damn cell phone, but they trust her to watch over someone else’s kids?

Then there’s the killer himself, who’s a complete model for convenient movie logic. He seems to be all-knowing and all-seeing, and has superhuman strength at times when it’s necessary for the scene to work. He seems to have no particular motivation, other than he just likes to kill babysitters for the hell of it. Apparently he travels the country on this very particular mission, even going as far as 125 miles from his last murder to this one. How he happened to find this particular isolated house, and knew that the owners would be gone and were hiring a young female babysitter for the night, is left up to one’s imagination. Not to mention how he knew the owners’ phone number. Wouldn’t a rich doctor’s private home number be unlisted? Maybe he just dialed numbers at random until he found the right combination.

This is what really kills me about the whole thing – let’s look at this logically from the killer’s point of view. OK, let’s say you’ve found a house with a babysitter in it, and you intend to kill said babysitter. You have no idea where the house’s owners are or how long they will be gone. Why in god’s name wouldn’t you just break into the house, kill her and get it over with? I mean, the parents could come back at any time! Why spend what seems like hours toying with the girl on the phone, when anything could happen in the meantime? The owners could come back, the police could come, her parents could show up to check on her. Hell, the bonfire could spread and burn down the woods he’s hiding in for all he knows. Obviously he enjoys fucking with her head and freaking her out, but it doesn’t seem like a very efficient way to go about it. He’s also basically giving her time to formulate a plan of defense, if she’s levelheaded enough to pull that off. Wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier and quicker just to get in, attack and get out? Yeah, I know, then the movie would be over in 30 minutes. But at least it would make sense.

For such a simple storyline, the movie also spends an inordinate amount of time telling us stuff we don’t particularly need to know. There’s a whole subplot about Jill and her estranged boyfriend, who she apparently caught kissing her best friend Tiffany (Katie Cassidy, who I guess is David Cassidy’s daughter, if anybody cares). This is how ridiculous and out of touch this movie is, that Tiffany is labeled a “slut” just for kissing a guy. Jesus, even John Hughes wasn’t that naïve. Do the filmmakers have any idea what high-school kids are up to these days? I guess not, or else this movie would be called When a Stranger Instant Messages. Anyway, we’re supposed to think this will all lead up to said boyfriend coming to the house and either coming to her rescue or getting killed off himself. Nope, instead he disappears from the second half of the movie completely. Tiffany does reappear, but the entire subplot serves no purpose, since Jill and Tiffany make up and Jill wants to reconcile with her boyfriend anyway. What was the point? Was the whole thing set up to keep the boyfriend away from the house? If so, why? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to bring as many people as possible to the house? That’s where all the action is, after all.

So yeah, logic isn’t exactly this movie’s strong suit. But they more than make up for it in atmosphere, which is something that’s sorely lacking in most horror films these days. I’m always saying that good horror movies need atmosphere, and a ton of it, and somebody finally delivered on that. If you happen to like old-fashioned “dark creepy house” movies with lots of shadowy lighting, you’ll dig the look of this one. It’s kinda cool to see action director West (Tomb Raider, Con Air) dial it down a bit and try to approximate the style of the late ‘70’s/early ‘80’s slasher movies, with long takes and deliberate pacing replacing the overcaffeinated style of his earlier work. Sure, it’s all been done before, but it’s nice to see someone remembers how to do it.

I just wish the damn thing wasn’t so freakin’ predictable. It’s not hard to figure out right from the beginning who will die and who won’t among the movie’s main characters (especially when so few of them actually go to the house). I get that it’s not meant to be a high body-count movie, and that’s fine. But there’s never a sense of genuine danger here – I never really felt like Jill or the kids could actually be murdered by this guy. Not in this movie, anyway. While I admired the style of the film on one level, on another I couldn’t help but feel like it was all one long, drawn-out tease without a particularly satisfying payoff. I was never seriously creeped out or disturbed in any way by this film – it’s too safe for that, like a horror movie with training wheels. If you’re a preteen who’s never seen a horror film before in your life, it may freak you out on a primal level. But the rest of us have seen it all before, many times over.

Still, you gotta give West and company points for trying. And it doesn’t hurt to have an attractive young cast either. I’ve never actually seen Belle before (at least not in a major role), and I thought she tried her damndest to bring life to what could have been a stereotypical teen-girl-in-peril role. Yes, she’s model-quality gorgeous, but she doesn’t seem overly aware of it (in character, at least), and she displays a prototypically teenage awkwardness at times that’s entirely appropriate. She reminded me of a young Anne Archer (wow, that dates me), all brown hair and eyebrows (I mean this as a compliment). Cassidy, who looks more like Sheryl Crow’s daughter than David Cassidy’s, brings a sympathetic edge to her “look, I’m a bitch and I know it” part. Tessa Thompson, best known as the villainous Jackie on Veronica Mars, shows some range here as a nice friend of Jill’s (though they missed an opportunity to bring in tons of VM fans who’d love to watch her die horribly).

But for longtime horror fans, the best reason to see When a Stranger Calls is the vocal work of genre veteran Henriksen. As the Stranger’s phone voice (he’s played in person by Geraghty), good ol’ Lance provides the only genuine sense of menace in this entire enterprise (even if he’s maybe 30 years older than Geraghty). Now that’s kickin’ it old-school, boys and girls.

**1/2 2/8/06

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My Top 10 of 2005; and Some Meaningless Oscar Blather

Posted by CinemaPsycho on February 1, 2006

So, as we all know, the Oscar nominations came out today. I’m just slightly more excited about this than I am about the Stupor Bowl – which is to say, not very.

I know, I should be more enthusiastic, given my nom de plume and all, but I’ve reached a point where award shows just don’t do it for me anymore. Having long since given up on the Grammys, the Emmys, the Golden Globes (biggest joke in the industry) and every other award show on Earth, the Oscars are pretty much the last one that I actually watch all the way through every year. But truthfully, I have to wonder what’s in it for me. It’s not like I get anything if my favorites win, right? For years I’ve wondered about people who actually care about sports – rooting for a bunch of millionaires playing children’s games seems like a colossal waste of time. I just don’t give a rat’s ass.

But how is this any different? Does it really impact my life in any way if George Clooney wins an Oscar? Not really – he’ll still be getting all the money and pussy in the world whether he wins or loses. So why do I care? Fuck that guy!

But seriously, I think a large part of my Oscar burnout is due to having spent the last month or so trying to catch up with the likely contenders in theaters. It’s not the movies themselves that discourage me – they’ve mostly been terrific. It’s the accompanying media cynicism and general apathy from the public that puts me in the doldrums. I’m sick to death of hearing about how Memoirs of a Geisha (which I really liked, and apparently I’m the only one) was such a disappointment and the casting was “racist”. I’m bored silly by the “controversy” surrounding Munich, an excellent picture that apparently suffers from not being bloodthirsty enough, if you can believe that. If only they’d cast Jean-Claude van Damme as Avner and let him kickbox the evil Palestinians (complete with twirling mustaches) to death. They could tie Avner’s wife to the railroad tracks…

And I swear to Christ, if I hear one more fucking “gay cowboy” joke, I’m gonna move to Tibet and become a sheltered monk for the rest of my life. Enough already. You’re not comfortable with male homosexuality, we get it. I’ve actually read articles that suggest this phenomenon shows that people are becoming more accepting of gay content – well, from my vantage point in the Midwest, I think the opposite is true. If anything, the movie is being used as an excuse to take cheap shots at gay people. To lame comedians and stupid radio disc jockeys, Brokeback Mountain is a punchline, not an artistic achievement. I’ve even gotten emails from people that read like this – “can’t wait for your Brokeback Mountain review, LOL”. What’s that about?

If I’ve ever given the impression on this site (and I don’t think I have) that I’m some sort of idiot gay-basher, let me correct that right now. Although I didn’t think it was the best film of the year, I sincerely hope that Brokeback cleans up at the Oscars, just because it would be a swift kick in the nuts to all the ignorant, intellectually retarded rednecks out there. Not that those people actually care about things like the Academy Awards, but at least they’d have to take notice of it. If this movie brings us even a tiny bit closer to – dare I say it – social progress, I’m all for it. It’s long past time for people to fucking get over it already. Gay people are out there, they exist, now let’s just deal. And I say this as a straight male without a gay bone in his body (it’s sad that I have to explain that, but I know certain people will wonder after reading this). People are what they are. If you can’t handle that, shut the fuck up and leave them alone. You can be secure in the knowledge that they probably don’t like you either.

The odd thing is that Brokeback is hardly the “gay recruitment” movie that it’s been portrayed as by the Christian right. Being gay in Wyoming doesn’t exactly seem like a barrel of fun, know what I mean? If you have to go up to a fucking mountain to be happy and be yourself…that’s not particularly encouraging. (Hey, is there a straight mountain I can go to?) When a major character dies from a gay-bashing incident, and there’s a flashback about a guy who had his dick ripped off for being gay, and these two guys are miserable their whole lives because they have to hide their relationship, I wouldn’t call that a real propaganda piece for embracing the gay lifestyle. This portrayal isn’t going to convert anyone – it’s sad and depressing. From a different perspective, this could easily have been a Lifetime movie about two devoted wives whose husbands deceive them about their true sexuality. The whole thing is fucked up, and that’s the point. If Ennis and Jack could just go off together and be gay, that’d be one thing, but the society they live in won’t allow it. So everybody winds up getting hurt in the process. And there are quite a lot of places in America where it’s still like that, so let’s not kid ourselves.

The thing that struck me the most about the movie was that it was taking place during the Sixties and Seventies, for cryin’ out loud. There were all these social changes happening at the time, and these people aren’t even aware of it. If that’s not the saddest thing of all, it’s damn close to it. It’s kind of like my Mom – she grew up in the Sixties, yet she didn’t know who Jimi Hendrix was. She never heard about Woodstock or any of that stuff. You would think she lived on Mars or something. She was there, but was she really there? It’s amazing how people can live through a time like that and experience virtually none of it.

Anyway, let’s veer back to the subject of the Oscars. I can’t say I was really surprised by any of the nominations. Yeah, there were some worthy films and actors left out, but that happens every year. That’s only natural when you make an arbitrary list like “the 5 Best Performances by an Actor” – it’s no different than making a list of the “Most Attractive Women” or “Most Do-able Babes”. Completely subjective. In this case, it’s more of a collective subjectivity, but basically it’s whoever gets the most votes. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, any list of attractive women without Kristen Bell on it is simply incomplete, but I never see her name on any of those things. One person’s “Best Albums of the Year” will be completely different from another person’s. This isn’t any different. Let’s say there are 6 great Supporting Actress performances this year – one of them is going to get left out. Does that make the 6th person’s performance less great? Of course not. All it means is, they didn’t make that particular list. It’s an error of omission, not a political statement. Now let’s say there are 10 or 20 or even 50…you get the idea.

So who am I genuinely happy for? Philip Seymour Hoffman, of course. He’s one of the best actors working, and he’s terrific in Capote. David Straithairn, just for being recognized. Paul Giamatti (finally!). William Hurt – great to see A History of Violence get something. Amy Adams, even though I didn’t see Junebug, just because she’s cute as all hell and no one seems to know who she is (besides me, obviously). Catherine Keener, absolutely. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, sure. See what happens when you actually act, Reese? Do more of that, please. Clooney for director (see, I was kidding above) and Munich for bucking the political-pressure bullshit. And pretty much everyone involved with Brokeback Mountain, but most especially Michelle “Jen” Williams, for two reasons: 1) she totally nailed the part and kicked ass (you can just feel the pain in her eyes) and 2) maybe now people will finally stop complaining about movies having “WB casts”. Hollywood skews young, and always has – get over it already.

Who would I have liked to see get more recognition? Well, I would have loved to see A History of Violence get noms in the major categories (Best Picture, Director, Mortensen for Actor, Bello for Actress) but it being a Cronenberg film, I knew there wasn’t a shot in hell of that happening. The Academy doesn’t like Cronenberg, because they suck. Also, I would’ve liked to see Match Point get a few more, because that might mean the film would actually play at a theater near me and I could go see the damn thing! Ditto on The New World. And it’s not exactly a big shocker that King Kong only got technical awards – did anyone really expect otherwise? I love the movie, but it’s more of a technical achievement than it is a film with great acting or writing. Then again, one could say the same thing about Titanic, but that had massive critical acclaim at the time (as did Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy), something that Kong decidedly lacked. Plus it was three hours long, and we just can’t have that, you know. People have their priorities.

Overall, as a film fan, I really can’t complain all that much. See, I remember a time when indie or “low-budget” films had an uphill battle getting any recognition from the Academy. It wasn’t so long ago that, if a film wasn’t produced by a major studio (not a major’s indie division) and/or featured major A-list stars, it was dead to Oscar. That all changed around 1996 or so, when movies like Fargo got in there and made most mainstream moviegoers ask, “what the fucking hell is Fargo?” So the fact that most of the nominations were given to films that haven’t been seen by the mainstreamers kinda delights me to no end. It’s not an elitist thing, really – I just think that quality films need to be sought out, and the Oscars give people a reason to do that. If these nominations mean more people will see a film like Capote or Good Night, and Good Luck, or even a Junebug or a Transamerica – if it helps people broaden their cinematic horizons even just a little – I’m all fucking for it. I mean, we live in a country where people flock to see utter crap like Big Momma’s House 2, and I honestly can’t imagine why. Weren’t they burned badly enough on the first one? We have more choices than ever now, thanks to multiple screens, DVD, cable movie channels, and people still want to see that? I don’t get it.

The one movie that genuinely surprised me, that I wasn’t expecting to get multiple nominations, was Crash. I never actually saw Crash, probably because I was too busy this summer seeing stuff like Mr. and Mrs. Smith (see, I’m a hypocrite) but pretty much everybody I know who saw it said the same thing – “overrated”. I honestly can’t say I thought it would be a major player in the Oscars this year, or that it wouldn’t be – I didn’t really give it that much thought. I can’t even complain about it being there, because I haven’t seen the film and I can’t speak to its quality. Maybe I’d really like it, I don’t know. But it seems to be this year’s Miramax movie – meaning, the one movie that many people think doesn’t deserve to be there (I know, it’s not an actual Miramax film). Whether or not that’s true, it’s funny to me how certain people bitch about the Academy only nominating “important films” – like, what are they supposed to nominate, Cheaper by the Dozen 2? This is what happens when you read the AICN Talkbacks too much; you start thinking everyone’s an idiot. Hell, I’d rather see a movie that’s about something get nominated, even if I didn’t like it, than a movie about nothing that I did like. If that makes any sense at all.

Then again, there will always be people who bitch about the Oscars, no matter what gets nominated (Peter Travers, for one). If the nominated movies are too big, they’re playing it safe and shutting out independents. If the films are too small, they’re ignoring popular tastes and showing elitism. Whatever. Why can’t it just be about quality? Or is that too naïve?

So this brings me (finally) to my Top 10. Some people apparently thought 2005 was a terrible year for movies. Personally, I think those people are on crack. Look at what we had this year – a Star Wars movie that was actually watchable! A really good Batman movie! New movies by David Cronenberg and George Romero that actually got wide releases! It’s been about 15 years since we could say that. Spielberg knocked it out of the park twice! Paris Hilton got a pipe shoved through her head! (on screen, I mean) And Freddie Prinze Jr. was nowhere to be found (except on TV, and I’ve avoided him there too)! And if Hollywood fare didn’t satisfy you, there were a megaton of foreign films in theaters and on DVD, especially Asian imports from the likes of Chan-Wook Park, Kim ki-Duk and Takashi Miike! Even Ingmar Bergman had a new film out, for christ’s sake. Seriously, what are people complaining about? I mean, if you suffered through The Dukes of Hazzard or Son of the Mask or Alone in the Dark or Guess Who, frankly that’s your own damn fault. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know those movies were going to suck. If you’re basing your movie year on the absolute worst dreck that’s out there, obviously you’re going to think that it sucked. If all you watch is Fear Factor and Skating with Celebrities, you’re going to think TV sucks too. But it doesn’t, if you know what to watch. Use your head.

So, as with last year, my Top 10 list is indicative only of my personal tastes and nothing else. I’m not claiming these are the “best” movies of the year – they are the movies that I liked the most, that rocked my world the most. I obviously didn’t see everything that came out this year, and I don’t claim to. Movies I missed for various reasons include Crash, The Wedding Crashers (is there a theme here?), The Constant Gardener (it had a brief one-week run at a shoddy second-run theater here, and I didn’t want to see it that way) and The Squid and the Whale. Movies that didn’t play anywhere near me by the end of January include The New World, Match Point, The Matador, Transamerica and The Producers (yes, really). I saw one of my Top 10 on DVD, the rest theatrically, and a few films that I gave “4 stars” to didn’t make the list simply because there wasn’t enough room for them. That’s a sign of a good year for me. So here we go:

1) A History of Violence

2) George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead

3) Oldboy

4) Good Night, and Good Luck

5) Munich

6) Capote

7) War of the Worlds

8) King Kong

9) The Devil’s Rejects

10) Brokeback Mountain

So there you have it. Take it for what it’s worth, That wraps up 2005 – I’ll be back soon with more reviews and my annual list of films I don’t want to see this year. Later

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