Wednesday, September 07, 2011

What, no reviews yet?: The Debt and Shark Night

I'm not usually the new-release guy at eFilmCritic; there are other guys who get invited to press screenings and can even get to them because they don't have a day job with potentially late hours out in Burlington (or whatever the local equivalent to Burlington, MA, is). I mostly pick up the stuff that falls through the cracks - indie films that hit Boston before Chicago, or horror movies that don't screen for critics. That explains Shark Night, but The Debt just seems to have fallen through the cracks.

Anyway, both were interesting theatrical experience (if mediocre movies). I caught The Debt at the Coolidge Corner Theatre after stuffing myself at SoulFire and feeling like I was going to explode. That's not necessarily important information, except that to get from A to B, one walks through Brookline's Coolidge Corner neighborhood, which has a fairly sizable Jewish presence - signs say things like "Established 5757", which was a head-scratcher the first time I saw it. After walking through that, a marquee like this:

Coolidge Corner Marquee 4 September 2011

... which features a drama/thriller about the Mossad hunting down a Nazi war criminal, a drama about a French family discovering Holocaust-related secrets, a comedy from Woody Allen, and a documentary about the guy whose stories inspired Fiddler on the Roof... well, it's kind of amusing. They don't usually play to the neighbors that much, but it seemed to be working out well enough for them this weekend: There was a pretty good crowd when I got there, and the screenings in the smaller digital rooms were sold out. Not bad for a Sunday night, albeit one with a holiday coming up on Monday.

I used that holiday to catch the matinee of Shark Night 3D at Fresh Pond, which I regret. Not because of the movie - it has its issues, but I could see enjoying it if shown at a decent theater. Fresh Pond was not that, though - the 12pm show did not start until 12:25, and it looked terrible - dark and muddy and low-res. The end credits were basically unreadable, the whole picture looked maroon, and the 3D tech was working against me; my eyes couldn't lock onto the foreground plane much of the time. I'm usually pretty comfortable with 3D, and this looked to be shot that way rather than post-converted, so I strongly suspect that this was just bad projection rather than something inherent to the process.

Which stinks, really, because I would like to go to Fresh Pond more: They are an easy stop on my way home from work, their base ticket prices are some of the best in the metro Boston area, and the surcharges for 3D ($2.25-$2.75) are actually reasonable. But presentation is king, and while I'm willing to accept the center aisles and high/small screens (the likely result of going from two screens to ten at some point) at that price, I've got to be able to see the movie. So, I guess it's back to only going there when something isn't showing anywhere else.

The Debt

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 September 2011 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first-run)

Attach enough talent to a movie, and more often than not, you'll at least wind up with something worth watching, and The Debt has a fair number of good people working on it. Does it translate into a great movie? No, not really; the people involved have to settle for having made one that's okay, and at times a little better.

Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) is a hero; back in 1965, as a younger woman (Jessica Chastain), she and her fellow Mossad agents David Peretz (Sam Worthington) and team leader Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas) infiltrated East Berlin and captured Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), with Rachel shooting him as he tried to escape. Thirty years later, Rachel's and Stephan's daughter Sarah (Romi Aboulafia) has written a book about the mission, and as parties are held for its release, we see that the scar on Rachel's face is only the most visible reminder that there was a cost to this mission: David (CiarĂ¡n Hinds) is clearly full of despair before walking into the path of a bus, and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) must ask his ex-wife to revisit the parts of the mission that didn't make it into their daughter's book.

The Debt doesn't quite break neatly in half, but comes close enough, with Jessica Chastain anchoring one half of the movie and Helen Mirren the other. The thing that may surprise audiences is that Chastain's is the better half. It's not perfect by a long shot, but it plays as a well-tuned Cold War thriller, with the agents quickly established as capable people up against a formidable task that goes sideways in a way that cranks the tension up a notch of two, even considering that much of how it will end is a foregone conclusion. The main storyline with Rachel having to get very close to Vogel, is exceptionally creepy in an unusual way, and the "evil bastard plays mind games with captors" segment is quite well done as well.

Full review at EFC.

Shark Night

* * (out of four)
Seen 5 September 2011 at Entertainment Cinemas Fresh Pond #1 (first-run, digital 3D)

So, there's going to be an "unrated" cut of this when it hits video, right? Because as it stands, this PG-13 flick seems like a waste of a perfectly capable boobs & blood delivery system despite its genial cast. Was director David R. Ellis so spooked by how Snakes on a Plane underachieved with an R rating that he felt compelled to go too far in the other direction?

It's a pretty standard set-up: Tulane senior Sara (Sara Paxton) has a nice vacation house on a salt water lake, and she's bringing some friends up for the weekend: Malik (Sinqua Walls), a football star; Maya (Alyssa Diaz), his girlfriend; Nick (Dustin Milligan), his tutor with the crush on Sara; Gordon (Joel David Moore), Nick's roommate; Beth (Katharine McPhee), the sort of slutty girl; Blake (Chris Zylka), the sort of slutty guy; and Sherman, the yellow Labrador Retriever. On the way, they meet some of Sara's old friends she hasn't seen since going away to college, Dennis (Chris Carmack) and Red (Joshua Leonard), and the local Sheriff (Donal Logue). Everyone's having a good time, at least until one gets maimed by a shark which has no business being there and the boat gets wrecked.

The script for Shark Night is pretty standard stuff; writers Will Hayes and Jesse Studenberg set out to build a slasher movie with sharks and hit all the expected beats, and they aren't exactly loading up on the irony (the scene where the college kids meet Dennis and Red is exactly the sort of thing Tucker and Dale vs. Evil hits gold spoofing). That's not exactly a bad thing, though - the filmmakers never look down on the audience for liking this sort of material, and they can push it to reasonably silly places while staying just on the good side of self-parody.

Full review at EFC.

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