Monday, January 19, 2009

Last Chance Harvey and My Bloody Valentine

An odd double-feature, to be sure. The usual Saturday movie plan - or at least, the reasonable-weather Saturday movie plan - is to see something at the $6 show in Boston Common and then walk to Fenway to see something else. Saturday was just damn cold, though, and when I got out of Last Chance Harvey, it was a rare case of there being about a fifteen-minute turnaround before another movie I'd like to see. So, yeah, I grabbed onto that.

To no great surprise, Last Chance Harvey is a better movie than My Bloody Valentine. To be expected, but I was really hoping Valentine would at least be a good example of what it is. Instead, it's just a paint-by-numbers horror remake notable for its gimmick.

Which is too bad. I like 3-D, and would have been really happy to have a good 3-D blood & guts movie. Didn't happen, and I don't hold out a lot of hope for this summer's Piranha (if it even gets a chance to take theaters from Ice Age 3).

Last Chance Harvey

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 January 2009 at AMC Fenway #12 (first-run)

Looking at the seven-year gap in Joel Hopkins's filmography makes me glad that, as much as I like movies, I'm not trying to make them. After all, Jump Tomorrow had to have been considered something of a success for a rookie filmmaker: It won awards at festivals, made it to theaters, and the people who saw it generally liked it, describing the filmmaker as one to watch. So why no follow up until now? I can't say. Maybe Hopkins had writer's block; maybe things kept almost happening but falling through; maybe studios just didn't see him as a good risk. I don't know if I could take years of that, though I'm glad Hopkins did.

Last Chance Harvey isn't complicated; it introduces us to Harvey Shine (Dustine Hoffman) and Kate Walker (Emma Thompson) quickly: Harvey writes music for advertising in New York, Kate conducts surveys in London. They have a couple of near-misses when Harvey comes to London for his daughter's wedding, finally meeting in an airport bar after Harvey (who had left the wedding early because he was afraid for his job) misses his flight. Harvey is charmed by Kate's forthrightness, which is something she's not sure how to react to.

Like the story, Harvey and Kate are straightforward, but interesting individuals. Harvey, for instance, spends the first act suffering various indignities, from an anti-theft device being stuck to his suit to losing his job to the gut-punch of daughter Susan (Liane Balaban) saying that he wants her stepfather Brian (James Brolin) to give her away. Even before Harvey acknowledges it, we suspect he brought some of what's happening upon himself, he can be prickly and distant. Hoffman doesn't allow that to define him, though; there's an embarrassment to his grumpiness that says, yes, he recognizes that he's not doing the best he could, but he can't not be frustrated. The neat thing that Hoffman captures is that Harvey does not have to be the top dog, and in fact doesn't particularly seem like he wants to be, but he has a hard time finding the spots to be assertive and the line between being gracious and being treated badly. He likes strong women - he wouldn't have been attracted to Kathy Baker's Jean otherwise and he's perfectly comfortable letting Thompson's Kate tower over him.

Emma Thompson is a pleasure as well. In some ways, Kate is interesting for what she is not: She's not used to a man pursuing her, but she is also not down on herself for being single in her forties - in short, a woman who is far less concerned about her marital status than the people around her are. She's quite the likable character, smart and funny if also a little cautious when it really matters. She's not quite perfect - there's impatience with her mother (Eileen Atkins) - but Thompson does a really fantastic job of showing Kate get swept off her feet while still being very much Harvey's equal. That certainly doesn't diminish toward the end when she has to explicitly show a little more vulnerability, either.

Of course, that section at the end comes in part because of a plot "twist" that made the audience groan a little. It's a problem that threatens to rear its head earlier in the movie - Harvey and Kate are one near-miss short from this being a movie about destiny rather than actual romance. The thing is, the movie really doesn't need that sort of obstacle or complication - Harvey even grumbles about it being a needless nuisance - as we've come to enjoy the pair reacting to each other enough that we don't really need outside stimulae at this point to move the story forward; we trust the characters. Hopkins tended to push a little hard at times in Jump Tomorrow, too, so it's something to work on.

On the other hand, just having the movie play out like Before Sunset with more mature characters might be considered playing by the book as well, albeit a somewhat less common one. Last Chance Harvey is never quite going to be that - adults do have other factors that interfere with their lives. Both Harvey and Kate have plenty of interesting but not distracting supporting characters to keep it from being entirely a two-person show.

That two-person show is where the movie becomes more than an interesting idea well-explored, though. Watching Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson discover each other is a bit magical. That's worth a few awkward moments; not enough filmmakers are willing and able to be this romantically optimistic.

Also at EFC, along with two other reviews.

My Bloody Valentine

* * (out of four)
Seen 17 January 2009 at AMC Fenway #16 in digital 3-D (first-run)

I am not, in general, a big fan of the lowered-standard argument in judging movies; setting the bar low and then clearing it is not actually impressive, even in horror movies. I made an exception for My Bloody Valentine, though - I was ready to judge it entirely based on how much fun it was to have bits of people flying off the screen at me. That still needs to be surrounded by basic competence, though, and sadly, My Bloody Valentine isn't even very good based upon those low expectations.

Ten years ago, we're told, a tunnel collapsed in the mining town of Harmony. Blame fell on Tom Hanniger (Jensen Ackles), the son of the mine's owner who forgot to bleed the pipes. There was only one survivor, Harry Warden (Richard John Walters), and he was found to have killed the other miners to save air. Coming out of his coma on Valentine's Day, Warden slaughtered a couple dozen before being shot by the sheriff.

Now, Tom (who has been out of town ever since) is back to finish the paperwork necessary to sell the mine. It's awkward for a number of reasons: The mine is the town's lifeblood, Tom's old girlfriend Sarah (Jaime King) is now married to the new sheriff, Axel (Kerr Smith) - though perhaps not happily, as Axel's girl on the side and Sarah's best friend Megan (Megan Boone) has just informed him that she is pregnant - and, of course, anniversaries of holiday killing sprees are the perfect excuse for a new killing spree, especially when no body was recovered and there's a group of survivors of the first spree - specifically, Tom, Sarah, Axel, and local tramp Irene (Betsy Rue) - who haven't been skewered by Warden's pickaxe.

Given the movie's initial "we're not trying to win Oscars here" goal - a 1980s style, hard-R slasher enhanced by the latest 3-D projection technology - it starts out on track. The effects used for the initial "ten years ago" section are cool, and the movie does not screw around with making the audience wait for what they paid to see - within minutes, blood is flying, the hospital is a charnel house, picks are sticking out of the screen with eyeballs on the end. There's a short break in the action to get us to the present, but the gore quickly starts up again, and I don't think we ever see Irene wearing more than high-heeled sandals in 2009, either.

Things are going good, and then the filmmakers make the fatal mistake of deciding that this thing needs a story. Worse than that, they decide that this story should be a mystery, with claims that Warden is definitively dead and the characters pointing fingers at each other. I'm all for horror movies having a little meat to their bones, but My Bloody Valentine is far too stupid to invite the audience to start paying attention to what people are saying and use their brains to figure out what's really going on. It's counter-productive; this is a movie that could happily get by running on adrenaline that regularly slows down to let the audience examine its weak spots.

Aside from being a bad mystery - it lies, seems to choose its solution at random, and the Valentine's Day angle... As wonderfully disgusting a visual as human hearts being ripped from chest and displayed in boxes of chocolates is, it never really makes much sense: Did Warden look at a calendar when he came out of a coma and decide that he needed a signature to his spree-killing? (What would he have done if he awoke a few days earlier or later?) Is it a useful bit of psychology later? (Not really) Anyway, aside from that, the movie just isn't put together well as a trashy slasher flick. Everybody covers up after the promising early nudity, and there's a limit to what can be done with a pickaxe as a murder weapon.

To be fair, the filmmakers do come up with some nifty ways to use the 3-D technology, and the gore is nicely done. The acting isn't that bad for a slasher film - nobody should quit their day jobs on TV, but the cast is hobbled by a story that just doesn't make any sense.

It's not a capital crime for a story like this not to make sense. Just don't give the audience time to notice the situation.

Also at EFC, along with two other reviews.

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