Contagion: Captain Trips Rides Again

by Ethan Alter September 9, 2011 6:00 am
<i>Contagion</i>: Captain Trips Rides Again

The killer virus movie has been a Hollywood staple for decades now, but it's interesting to note how differently the genre has been interpreted over the years. For example, 1971's The Andromeda Strain is a low-key mystery, while 1995's Outbreak plays like a flat-out Jerry Bruckheimer-style action movie. Meanwhile, 2002's 28 Days Later and 2007's I Am Legend use their viruses as a gateway to exploring a post-apocalyptic world populated by zombies and vampires respectively. And now we have the industry's latest exercise in viral entertainment, Contagion, which takes the form of a classic procedural, the kind delivered week in and week out on shows like Law & Order and CSI. In fact, the sprawling screenplay by Scott Z. Burns could easily serve as a jumping-off point for an ongoing TV series that tracks the spread of a deadly virus across the country as a sizeable team of brave men and women mobilize to stop it.

<i>A Good Old Fashioned Orgy</i>: Does It Stack Up to <i>Party Down</i>‘s Group Sex?

If you're going to polarize mainstream audiences by putting the word "orgy" in your film title, you damn well better deliver some serious raunch. Anyone who ventures out to see this Jason Sudeikis-starring end-of-summer flick (penned by veteran comedy writers Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck), can rest assured that there is plenty of it, complete with group sex and nudity. Phew, right? Sitting through this 98-minute indie flick about a group of longtime friends planning the most epic summer blowout of all time -- whose theme I'm sure you can guess by now -- begged the question: Can it really compete with the 30-minute Party Down "Nick DiCintio's Orgy Night" episode? Let's battle it out.

Red State: God’s Lonely Man

by Ethan Alter September 2, 2011 6:00 am
<i>Red State</i>: God’s Lonely Man

A blood-soaked story of a rogue evangelical Christian sect and their self-appointed mission to punish the deviants and sinners (particularly those of the homosexual variety) in their midst, Red State isn't exactly what you would call a typical Kevin Smith film. And to be honest, that's a relief. Although the Jersey-born and bred writer/director has been building a strong media portfolio of late -- between his Twitter feed, podcasting empire, streaming radio service, comic book projects, a proposed daytime talk show and a just-acquired reality series about his comic book store, Smith seems to be competing for Howard Stern's old title of the King of All Media -- the crown jewel of his empire, namely his feature film career, has been creatively stagnant for much of the past decade. From the problematic father/daughter dramedy Jersey Girl, to the entirely unnecessary sequel Clerks II to the flaccid porn comedy Zack and Miri Make a Porno to the painful-to-watch hired gun gig Cop Out, Smith has either seemed completely disengaged from his work (as in Cop Out) or overly eager to repeat past successes (as in Clerks II) or just plain uncertain what kind of a movie he wants to make (Jersey Girl and Zack and Miri).

The Debt: Keep On Playing Those Spy Games

by Ethan Alter August 31, 2011 6:00 am
<i>The Debt</i>: Keep On Playing Those Spy Games

The Debt has one of the worst endings to an otherwise well-crafted thriller in recent memory. It's not just that the final 10-15 minutes are full of illogical contrivances (though they are) -- it's that they fundamentally contradict the movie's intended message. As star Helen Mirren informs us in a voiceover that precedes the closing credits, our takeaway is supposed to be that lies -- even the well-intentioned variety -- will inevitably be uncovered and the guilty may not always be brought to justice. But while she's soberly intoning those words, the events occurring onscreen tell a very different story, one that tries to put a positive, crowd-pleasing spin on what's otherwise a darker, more emotionally complex story. (Don't worry -- as much as I'd like to prepare you for the silliness of the ending, I'll restrain myself from giving it all away.)

The Family Tree: Not An American Beauty

by Ethan Alter August 26, 2011 3:58 pm
<i>The Family Tree</i>: Not An American Beauty

Sam Mendes and Alan Ball's 1999 Oscar winner American Beauty has a lot of sins to answer for, one of which is the subsequent existence of movies like The Family Tree. Like its predecessor, this irritating "ain't the suburbs wacky?" dark comedy tells the story of a dysfunctional family that's made up of the tightly-wound, sex-obsessed fortysomething patriarch Jack (Dermot Mulroney), his bitchy wife Bunnie (Hope Davis) and their snarky adolescent daughter Kelly (Brittany Robertson). There's even a religious nut in the form of their teenage son Eric (Max Thieriot), who has recently found God and now spends much of his time shooting the shit (as well as a few firearms) with his pastor, Reverend Diggs (Keith Carridine). It's all so familiar that while watching the film, you may feel as if you stepped into a time machine that's transported you back to that pre-iPod, pre-Netflix era of the late '90s.

Our Idiot Brother: All of Our Friends Made a Movie Together

by Rachel Stein August 26, 2011 6:00 am
<i>Our Idiot Brother</i>: All of Our Friends Made a Movie Together

Do you ever get sick of films that obviously have a large amount of improv? I'm fine with a few riffs here or there, but sometimes I long for tighter editing and, you know, actual writing. A line that I loved in The AV Club's excellent "Michael Schur walks us through Parks And Recreation" article series was when showrunner Schur was discussing the use of improvisation on his series and noted, "[W]e have many, many times thrown away jokes that we thought were way funnier than the stuff we wrote because, completely unintentionally, in the moment, they alter the scene. They change the motivation of the character or they indicate that the character doesn't care about something that he or she cares about or something. And I will always cut those jokes out because it's never worth sacrificing the scene or the story or the character for one joke."

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: Leave the Lights On

by Ethan Alter August 26, 2011 6:00 am
<i>Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark</i>: Leave the Lights On

One of the things that distinguishes Guillermo Del Toro's horror films from the rest of the genre rabble are their formal elegance, to say nothing of their narrative discipline. Where a movie like the recent Fright Night remake demonstrates a short-term memory for scares -- cramming multiple jolts into every scene with little regard to the overall arc of the film -- Del Toro takes his time establishing a compelling mood, intriguing characters and a distinctive setting before getting down to the spooky stuff. The setting plays a particularly important role in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, a haunted house chiller that takes place almost entirely within the walls of a 19th century manor. From the minute we lay eyes on the place, we know there's something not quite right about it -- beautiful Gothic architecture and to-die-for closet space notwithstanding -- and part of the fun of the movie lies in watching the house's hidden horrors slowly bubble to the surface. The difference between Fright Night and Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is like the difference between a novice poker player and an experienced card shark; the former tips his hand too quickly, while the latter bides his time before revealing what he's holding.

Colombiana: Good Girl Gone Bad

by Ethan Alter August 26, 2011 5:59 am
<i>Colombiana</i>: Good Girl Gone Bad

There are dumb action movies and then there's Colombiana, a revenge flick so relentlessly ridiculous and blatantly brain-damaged that you've got to wonder if the filmmakers are just messing with us from behind the camera. It would be one thing if the film were a broadly cartoonish romp like the 2007 spoof Shoot 'Em Up or a beautifully executed bit of absurdity such as John Woo's lone Hollywood masterpiece, Face/Off. But Colombiana is neither witty enough nor stylish enough to qualify as an "accidentally on purpose" guilty pleasure. Mainly it's just a waste of time, talent and resources on a movie that would feel more at home in the direct-to-DVD aisle of your local big box store than on a multiplex marquee.

Fright Night: Warning! This Remake Bites

by Ethan Alter August 19, 2011 6:00 am
<i>Fright Night</i>: Warning! This Remake Bites

The late '70s and early '80s were a boom time for cheap horror movies as the big Hollywood studios and independent producers churned out dozens upon dozens of low-budget pictures that featured attractive casts of teenagers getting summarily slaughtered by serial killers, zombies, vampires and other assorted monsters. Today, those titles have provided the industry with plenty of remake fodder to fill up multiplexes on otherwise slow weekends. In the past few years, we've been treated to remakes of everything from Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street to Prom Night and My Bloody Valentine. (Anyone wanna bet how long it'll be until we're buying tickets to new versions of Chopping Mall, April Fool's Day and Night of the Creeps?) So it was only a matter of time until someone got around to Fright Night, Tom Holland's fondly remembered 1985 tale of a suburban teen (William Ragsdale) who discovers that the guy next door (Chris Sarandon) is a literal bloodsucker.

Glee: The 3D Concert Movie: I Actually Might Not Stop Believing

by Rachel Stein August 12, 2011 6:00 am
<i>Glee: The 3D Concert Movie</i>: I Actually Might Not Stop Believing

Objectively speaking, Glee is a cash cow. It translates into anything, be it board games, apparel, books series, reality competitions... nothing is too much of a stretch to brand. When I originally heard of the concept of the Glee Live! In Concert! tour, I thought they were pushing it. And when I found out that they were slapping together a 3D documentary about the concert in a mere six weeks, I was ready to deem Glee bastardized beyond the point of return. But I was wrong: Glee: The 3D Concert Movie not only surprised me as a film, it restored a faith in the series that had been lacking for me. And as it turns out, a lot of my original assumptions going into the movie turned out to be incorrect.

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