Room “1408”: Worth Checking Out

1408 Film ReviewRoom 1408: Worth Checking Out
Rating: 3 of 4 stars
Film Review By Mercurio D. Rivera

The latest adaptation of a Stephen King short story, 1408 stars John Cusack as scribe Mike Enslin, a hardened cynic who writes tour guides reviewing the spookiest spots across America. After suffering a personal tragedy, Enslin spends lonely days on a book tour seeking solace in spirits of a different kind, the only kind he believes in, until he receives an anonymous postcard touting Room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel in Manhattan as prime ghost-hunting territory. A determined Enslin sets off on another debunking mission, but initially has trouble reserving the room. It turns out that hotel management has closed off Room 1408 since the 1980’s due to 56 deaths, including a parade of jumpers, a man who slit his own throat and tried to sew it back up with a knitting needle, various self-inflicted eye gougings, and patrons stricken with a nasty case of insanity—all within an hour after checking in. To summarize, “it’s a fucking evil room,” says Samuel L. Jackson as the hotel manager who implores Enslin to stay away with no success. (“I don’t want to clean up the mess,” he explains.)

Cusack is terrific as the increasingly desperate protagonist at war with the room’s special effects, including bleeding wallpaper, morphing paintings, extreme temperatures and, most chillingly, a digital clock-radio that blares the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” at the most inopportune moments. It’s scarier than it sounds—I guess “Hotel California” would have been too obvious?—but if this were all that it was about, the film would quickly turn tedious. What gives “1408” its edge and distinguishes it from scores of other haunted house special effects movies is the psychological component: Enslin is forced to confront the most frightening creatures of all—yep, those pesky inner demons.

In contrast with King’s other hotel horror masterpiece The Shining, which evoked a sense of dread from its isolated snowbound setting, King’s story manages to wring genuine chills despite its mid-Manhattan setting, mostly in everyday objects found in typical hotel rooms—no easy feat. All in all, this is a smart, above-average horror flick definitely worth checking out.

By Mercurio D. Rivera for Senses Five Press

Sheepishly B-a-a-a-d

Beware she who bears woolBlack Sheep: Sheepishly B-a-a-a-d
Rating: 2 out of 4 stars
Film Review by Mercurio D. Rivera

Carnivorous sheep run amok on a New Zealand farm in Jonathan King’s silly horror/comedy Black Sheep. Protagonist Henry Oldfield suffers from a peculiar phobia, a paralyzing fear of sheep following a childhood prank by his sinister older brother, Angus. After moving to the city and going into therapy, Henry returns years later to sell his part of the farm to his brother—just as two environmentalists are trespassing onto the property to uncover genetic experiments being performed on the livestock. No sooner than you can say “zombie sheep” a mutated lamb fetus crawls off, its bite transforming the sheep into vicious meateaters. And humans bitten by the infected sheep slowly morph into what can best be described as, well, goofy “weresheep” cast off from the island of Dr. Moreau. Henry and a female environmentalist named Experience battle the zombie sheep, the weresheep and Henry’s phobias. Scares and laughs ensue. Supposedly.

Striving to capture the tone of comedic horror movies such as Shawn of the Dead and Slither, Black Sheep unfortunately fails to deliver either laughs or chills. The horror/comedy ratio is out of whack: the humor is much too broad (“Who’s driving?” one of the characters in the back of a pickup truck screams; cut to the shot of a killer sheep behind the steering wheel) and the horror almost nonexistent. In the only frightening sequence early in the movie, a sheep stands at the end of a corridor–its silhouette preposterously threatening—as the phobic protagonist confronts his worst nightmare. Unfortunately, his neuroses are overcome way too easily—particularly given the circumstances, which would seem to validate his fears. The movie is also undermined by two scientists who perform genetic experiments in an evil, over-the-top Austin Powers sort of way.

I really wanted to like this one—zombie sheep? what’s not to like?—but in the end this one was just b-a-a-d.

By Mercurio D. Rivera for Senses Five Press

The Top Ten Movies of 2006

The Top Ten Movies of 2006

By Mercurio D. Rivera

More than any other year I can remember, the first half of 2006 was a veritable wasteland for movie-goers. Fortunately, the second half came through big-time, led by a triumvirate of Mexican directors (Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Fernandez Inarritu, and Guillermo del Toro) who left their mark on American cinema with three truly outstanding films (more later). This past year also saw Hollywood’s first attempts at tackling the subject of September 11th with the release of United 93 and World Trade Center, two very good movies that straddled the line between honoring and exploiting the heroes of that day. As a New Yorker who works across the street from Ground Zero, I can only say that, for me, it was still too soon. We also saw dueling movies about late-Victorian era magicians, The Illusionist and The Prestige, which provided solid—if not top-ten worthy—entertainment (the former a much better film than the latter). Other notable critics’ favorites that didn’t make my list include the flawed Flags of Our Fathers, which suffers from a lack of narrative drive and an unfocused viewpoint; Spanish director Pedro Aldomovar’s average-fare Volver, which can’t decide whether it is a realistic drama or a foray into surrealism: characters react to the return of their dead mother as casually as if they’d had a letter returned for insufficient postage; Will Smith’s vehicle, The Pursuit of Happyness, an uplifting but formulaic tale of the American dream, which makes for an excellent rental; and Borat, which provided a few good belly laughs, but which ultimately—like much of reality TV—I just didn’t trust; I couldn’t tell whether reactions were real or scripted.

Blow the trumpets, unfurl the banner and release the doves; here are the best movies of 2006:

10. Happy Feet. Moulin Rouge meets March of the Penguin and hatches a gorgeous, breathtaking animated adventure superior to either of those films. The protagonist, a young Emperor penguin (voiced by Elijah Wood), finds that he can’t sing the traditional mating call or “heartsong” of other penguins—but boy can he tap dance! When a fish drought is attributed to his un-penguin-like ways, tribal elders cast him out of the community, sending him on an odyssey to meet the “aliens” (human beings) who have been over-fishing the waters. With stunning, magnificently realized frozen landscapes, dizzying chase scenes, a wonderful score, and the traditional theme of individuality versus conformity—combined with modern lessons in global environmentalism—Happy Feet is the best computer-animated movie since Toy Story 2.

9. Dreamgirls. Bill Condon’s electrifying adaptation of the Broadway musical shows us the rise of the faux-Supremes girl-group, The Dreamettes, and the member they cast out along the way, played, ironically enough, by American Idol cast-off Jennifer Hudson in a bring-down-the-house-and-vaporize-the-rubble vocal performance. (When I caught a late-afternoon showing of Dreamgirls in a near-empty theater, the man sitting in front of me gave her performance of “And I’m Telling You, I’m Not Going” a standing ovation.) When she’s not singing, Hudson’s acting is so average it seems unfair she’s the favorite for this year’s Oscar for best supporting actress. Beyonce, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx also shine, and while it doesn’t quite have the razzle-dazzle of Chicago, Dreamgirls is still wildly entertaining.

8. Apocalypto. Say what you will about Mel Gibson (he’s an anti-Semitic zealot with a drinking problem; there, I said it), the man is a master filmmaker and storyteller. This audacious epic, set during the decline of the Mayan empire, dares to tell us a story from the perspective of a young hunter in a rain forest community of hunter-gatherers whose bucolic existence is shattered when marauding tribesmen from the capital city, on the prowl for human sacrifices, decimate his village. When our protagonist and his tribesman are captured and transported to the city, he must find a way to escape and find his way home to rescue his pregnant wife and young son. Despite the boat-loads of blood and gore, this pulse-pounding adventure accomplishes what only the very best movies do: it transports us to an utterly alien world and makes us care.

7. Notes on a Scandal. Judy Dench plays an obsessed lesbian stalker and Cate Blanchett a pedophile who’s the object of her twisted affections in this delicious British melodrama. Densch’s character, a battle-hardened London schoolteacher (who also serves as the film’s unreliable narrator), slowly finds herself smitten by the young Bohemian art teacher who joins the faculty. When she catches her in a compromising position with a 15-year-old student, blackmail ensues, along with twists and turns and reversals galore that keep the audience spellbound as both ladies ignite the screen in a showdown for the Oscar.

6. The Last King of Scotland. An adventure-seeking Scottish doctor travels to Uganda where he winds up treating and befriending the country’s charismatic leader, Idi Amin (Forrest Whittaker in a sure-bet Oscar-winning performance) in this pulse-pounding drama. Seduced by the luxurious, hard-partying lifestyle of those in power—even winding up in a dangerous romantic tryst with one of Amin’s wives—the young doctor abandons his fellow aid workers (including a superb, unrecognizable Gillian Anderson) and becomes Amin’s personal physician and adviser only to realize, slowly, to his horror, that his patient is a bloodthirsty, psychopathic despot. I expected a political drama and instead enjoyed one of the year’s best thrillers.

5. Letters From Iwo Jima. Clint Eastwood’s deeply affecting war movie chronicles the lives and death of Japanese soldiers on the ultimate suicide mission: defending the island of Iwo Jima from U.S. forces. Unlike Flag of our Fathers, Letters hones in on the viewpoint of a few compelling characters, including an Olympic equestrian gold medal winner, a dashing general (Ken Watanabe), and most compellingly, a young baker aching to return home to his wife and baby. Eastwood uses their letters to loved ones as a dramatic device to humanize enemy forces like never before.

4. Babel. Alejandro Fernandez Inarritu’s brilliant 21 Grams and Amores Perros, which made my lists in 2001 and 2003, respectively, explored the theme of fate versus chance through splintered, non-sequential, intersecting storylines. This year’s ambitious follow-up, Babel, employs the same filmmaking techniques and tackles the same theme—along with the basic idea that most conflict arises from miscommunication—when a Japanese man’s gift of a rifle to his Moroccan tour guide triggers three suspenseful, globe-spanning stories set in Japan, Morocco and the U.S./Mexico. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are outstanding as a couple who travel to Morocco to try to salvage their marriage after the death of their baby, but the real standouts are Rinko Kikuchi as a troubled, deaf Japanese teenager and Adrianna Barraza in an Oscar-worthy performance as a Mexican nanny who brings along the two little American children she cares for to her son’s all-night wedding in Mexico with disastrous consequences.

3. Children of Men. Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron’s bleak vision of the future stars Clive Owen as a Londoner trying to save the human species from extinction after a plague has rendered all women infertile. In the year 2027 no child has been born on the planet for twenty years, governments across the globe have collapsed, and London has become a chaotic police state plagued by terrorism, religious cultists, looters and illegal immigrants (“fugees”) who are kept in cages on the streets prior to deportation. When Owen’s character encounters a pregnant African fugee, he embarks on a hellish journey to transport her to the fabled “Human Project,” humanity’s last hope to propagate the species, along the way meeting memorable characters like an unforgettable Michael Caine as a futuristic drug-using hippie. What makes this dystopian futureworld so frightening is that it’s only a slight extrapolation of present-day concerns about terrorism, government fascism, and environmental catastrophe. Intelligent and moving, this one is destined to become a science fiction classic.

2. Pan’s Labyrinth. The third consecutive movie on my list by a Mexican director is Guillermo del Toro’s unforgettable hybrid of political drama and dark fantasy. Set in 1944 Spain, Franco’s fascistic regime has taken over, and a young girl must cope with her pregnant mother’s marriage to a sadistic general looking to stamp out the final resistance fighters. It also happens that the young protagonist may be an amnesia-stricken princess of a fantastical mythological underworld who must complete three tasks given to her by a faun (half-man, half-goat) to regain her memories and take her rightful place in the royal pantheon. Grim, violent and imaginative, this poignant film stays with you long after the credits roll.

1. The Departed. Martin Scorcese is back in his element in this brilliant, brutal crime drama, his best since Goodfellas, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon as flip sides of the same counterfeit coin: one an undercover police officer in the Irish mob, the other a mob-connected cop on Boston’s police force. The labyrinthine plot explores the theme of identity, what makes us who we are, our beliefs or our actions, and has so much ramped-up suspense that you’re guaranteed to wear out the edge of your seat. Featuring a veritable who’s who of tough-guy actors (Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen) playing tough-guy characters, Jack Nicholson out-toughs them all as a mob kingpin with a penchant for dildos and threeways. Somebody please hand Scorcese the Oscar he deserves: he directed the year’s best movie.

The near-misses include at least three movies that might have cracked the list any other year: 11. Little Miss Sunshine (oddball comedy about a quirky family’s Vacation-style road trip to a child beauty pageant—with the funniest ending of the year); 12. The Queen (Helen Mirren captures the essence of Queen Elizabeth II in this compelling drama imagining the behind-the-scenes reactions of the Royal Family to the death of Princess Diana); 13. Little Children (dark drama starring Kate Winlset as an unsatisfied suburban housemom who, on a dare, kisses a stranger in a park, and the consequences that follow); 14. An Inconvenient Truth/Who Killed the Electric Car? (Two documentaries guaranteed to educate and infuriate: Al Gore’s lecture on the looming threat of global warming, and Chris Paine’s account of the fate of electric cars that would feasibly reduce our dependence on foreign oil); 15. The Devil Wears Prada (entertaining chick flick about a young assistant’s experience in the fashion industry, with a sensational Meryl Streep as Cruella de Ville with depth); 16. Casino Royale (a terrific character-focused Bond film that almost manages to escape its spy-film genre boundaries); 17. Snakes on a Plane (a hilarious celebration of the B-movie and future audience-participation cult classic); 18. Slither (touch-in-cheek horror movie about parasitic alien slugs who transform ordinary Joes into flesh-hungry zombies); 19. Curse of the Golden Flower (China’s Tang dynasty meets Aaron Spelling’s Dynasty in this visually breathtaking martial arts soap opera).

The Top Ten Movies of 2005

Popcorn makes you fatThe Top Ten Movies of 2005
By Mercurio D. Rivera

In this year of declining tickets sales, the major studios continued their tradition of saving the best for last, releasing the majority of 2005’s best movies in December. This practice, along with the quick turnaround of movies from the big screen to DVDs, has contributed to audiences opting to stay at home to enjoy the slim pickings from the comfort of their living room sofas—not a bad strategy for those movies that don’t rely heavily on visual effects. Despite the dearth of quality during the first half of the year (with just a few exceptions), overall it proved a strong year for film, with an emphasis on the political thriller and gay/transgender subgenres.

As always, I begin by mentioning those critically acclaimed movies that are notably absent from my list. Among the year’s many political dramas, the ambitious and convoluted Syriana tops the list of the most overrated. Its multiple, murky storylines span the globe and left me scratching my head, perplexed by the plot and characters. Likewise, The Constant Gardener’s unintelligible, conspiracy-driven plot ruins a strong love story set in a striking African setting. While biopic Walk the Line has garnered some attention for the stellar performances of its leads, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, the truth is that its TV-movie script is utterly average and ─ unlike last year’s unapologetic Ray ─ makes a boatload of excuses for its protagonist’s bad behavior. Speaking of average-fare movies, I still don’t understand the firestorm over the beautifully shot March of the Penguins, which resembles any other wildlife special you can find on the Discovery Channel. David Cronenberg’s widely acclaimed History of Violence has a riveting beginning before settling into ho-hum comic book gangster violence. And Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, although technically well executed, simply fails to engage the viewer’s emotions until its final few minutes (in part due to the lack of chemistry between its leads, Russell Crowe and Rene Zellwegger, sporting bad Brooklyn accents).

But enough about the also-rans. Let’s get to the ten best movies of 2005:

10. Batman Begins ─ Christopher Nolan’s reinterpretation of the Dark Knight wisely focuses on the disturbing psychological aspects of the character, the childhood traumas and phobias that drive Bruce Wayne to play the part of millionaire playboy by day and bat-clad vigilante by night. More of an homage to Bob Kane’s Batman comics of the 1930’s and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns rather than its garish predecessor movies or the campy series of the 1960’s, there is a concerted effort to ground the character in the real world, which works to the film’s advantage. Christian Bale is terrific as tormented Bruce Wayne and he’s supported by a formidable cast that includes Michael Caine as paternal butler Alfred, Cillian Murphy as the demented Scarecrow and Liam Neeson as a villainous ninja and former mentor. Dark is good.

9. Match Point ─ Woody Allen’s engrossing drama stars the intense, pouty-lipped Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a former tennis pro and ambitious social climber who marries into a wealthy, upper crust British family and then risks it all by engaging in an adulterous affair with his brother-in-law’s American girlfriend (a smoldering, equally pouty-lipped Scarlett Johansson). Where the story heads is fairly predictable, but how we get there provides some surprising twists and turns. Unlike most Woody Allen flicks, there are no neurotic nebbish-y characters, no lame humor; these intelligent, self-absorbed characters play it dead serious. Reminiscent of Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, this suspenseful, cynical drama ruminates on the subjects of adultery, amorality, luck and making our own destinies.

8. The Squid and the Whale ─ This low-budget, high-quality, slice-of-life drama about a dysfunctional family set in 1980’s Park Slope, Brooklyn provides an entertaining and honest portrait of complicated characters facing turbulent times. Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels play literary intellectuals going through a messy divorce that forces their two sons to choose sides. Daniels is particularly effective as the family patriarch, an insufferably pompous penny-pincher and has-been writer who dismisses A Tale of Two Cities as “minor Dickens.” With terrific dialogue and superb acting, The Squid and the Whale reminds us that the dysfunctional family subgenre is alive and well.

7. The 40-Year-Old Virgin – Director Judd Apatow, the creator of the brilliant short-lived TV series Freaks and Geeks, brings that same sensibility ─ a deft straddling of the line between crudity and mushiness ─ to this, the year’s best comedy. Steve Carell is hysterical as the gentle-souled protagonist who’s reluctantly agreed to be tutored by his obsessive co-workers ─ Paul Rudd, Seth Rogan and others with plenty of relationship problems of their own ─ on the art of “getting some.” Despite reveling in vulgar gags involving speed dating, bar pick ups and porn, the movie never gets nasty. The characters remain real, so we care and laugh. And when Carell and his sweet girlfriend (the appealing Catherine Keener) finally get it on, well, let’s just say they bring new meaning to “making beautiful music together.”

6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire ─ The latest installment in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is the second-best of the bunch (only behind the original). Darker and more intense, the movie plays to its strength: the child actors’ development into gawky teenagers. Harry doesn’t merely face the challenge of participating in the Tri-Wizard Tournament; he also has to deal with his best friend’s jealousy over his selection and worry about getting a date for the Hogwart’s dance. The plot succeeds not so much because of its action sequences and spectacle – of which there are plenty ─ but because of the equal attention it gives to the adolescent angst of its characters. Also, Ralph Fiennes, oozing malevolence, is one heck of a frightful Voldemort.

5. Memoirs of a Geisha ─ Rob Marshall’s unfairly maligned follow-up to Chicago is a spectacular, lavish production that transports us to pre-World War II Japan, to the exotic and mysterious world of the geisha, women treated like “walking pieces of art.” Faithful to Arthur Golden’s bestseller, this captivating film traces the life of Sayuri, a girl from a remote fishing village who’s cast into indentured servitude after the death of her mother and eventually undergoes schooling to become a geisha. Kudos to Gong Li who eats up the screen as the tempestuous Hatsumomo, the most famous geisha in Kyoto and Sayuri’s jealous foil and rival. It’s a shame that the controversy over the casting of three Chinese actresses – Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh (all superb) – as Japanese geisha kept this movie from getting the acclaim it deserves. Its visual splendor, unusual subject matter and epic Hollywood romance easily make it one of the year’s best.

4. Pride and Prejudice ─ Having sat through plenty of yawn-inducing, period-piece costume dramas, I have to confess to approaching the latest adaptation of a Jane Austin novel with a few preconceptions and, yes, prejudices  but walking away completely charmed. This delightful take on the Bennets, an eighteenth century British family, and their comical, almost hysterical, efforts to marry off their five daughters pulls you right in and never lets go. Brenda Blethyn is funny and likeable as the single-minded family matriarch, and the incandescent Kiera Knightly “wows” as Lizzie, the film’s intelligent and witty protagonist who refuses to marry purely for monetary gain. Clever, funny and exceedingly romantic, even the most hardened cynics (yeah, that includes me) are guaranteed to fall prey to its charms.

3. Brokeback Mountain ─ Ang Lee’s heart-wrenching meditation on frustrated love is set in the beautiful backdrop of 1960’s Wyoming and explores a lifelong secret affair between two tough-guy sheepherders (Jake Gylenhaal and Heath Ledger). Ledger steals the movie with an Oscar-caliber performance as the gruff, taciturn rancher who rarely speaks about anything, let alone his forbidden feelings. The characters’ suffering is as palpable as it is poignant when they go their separate ways to meet only on occasional “fishing trips.” And their emotional absence also takes its toll on their respective marriages. (Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway are terrific as the tormented wives). Simply put, understated script + amazing acting + the agony of thwarted love = a movie that leaves a lasting impression. It deserves the accolades it’s received.

2. King Kong ─ Pass the extra large bucket of popcorn — it’s three hours long — for the year’s most exhilarating, action-packed adventure. As with his Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson’s magnificent, heart-stopping remake transports us to another world — this time two vivid settings actually, 1930’s economically depressed New York City, and the fog-enshrouded, dinosaur-filled Skull Island—but not before carefully fleshing out characters we grow to care about, including starving actress Ann Darrow (an Oscar-worthy Naomi Watts) and manically self-centered movie director Carl Denham (Jack Black). As a result, there are few “nameless extras” killed in the epic adventure that follows. Despite knowing the movie’s basic plot going in, it still manages to provide surprises and thrills aplenty, not to mention — yes, here we go again — the sadness of thwarted love. Peter Jackson is now officially the biggest gorilla in Hollywood.

1. Crash ─ Paul Haggis’s follow-up to his Million Dollar Baby screenplay is an electric, unpredictable and provocative exploration of racial and ethnic stereotypes in America — and provides no pat answers. Set in L.A., the cleverly plotted drama follows multiple storylines with sympathetic characters of different ethnicities — all angry, desperate and arguably racist. When the plotlines inevitably intersect during a crazed 36-hour period, it results in a combustible, thought-provoking “crash.” The all-star cast includes standout performances by Thandie Newton, Sanda Bullock (who knew she could act?) and Terrence Howard (playing a rich, straight-laced director, a character diametrically opposed to the rapping, misogynistic pimp he portrayed in this year’s Hustle and Flow). It’s rare to be surprised at the movies in this day of the dumbed-down formula flick and unending sequels. Crash surprised me and moved me and left me thinking. It’s the year’s best movie.

11. Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney’s relevant, stylish, black-and-white recreation of the on-air battle between Edward R. Murrow and Commie-hunting Sen. Joe McCarthy); 12. Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman disappears into the role of the egocentric author who stops at nothing to exploit the subjects of his book, In Cold Blood); 13. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (unfairly compared to Lord of the Rings—a comparison guaranteed to work to any movie’s detriment—this gorgeous and engaging children’s fantasy actually compares quite favorably to the Harry Potter movies); 14. Munich (Steven Spielberg’s grey, political drama about an Israeli assassination squad sent to retaliate against the terrorists who executed its athletes at the Olympic games is intelligent and ruminative, refusing to preach and providing no easy answers); 15. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (the acting is wooden and the dialogue stilted, but somehow—I’m not sure how—Lucas manages to connect all the dots and put together a dark, magnificent spectacle).